Looking for love with Phil Collins


How do you like, much less love, someone who hits you? That’s the question that’s been troubling me ever since I willingly went to the slapfest convened by Phil Collins at Temple Gallery and got the shock of my life, a real live slap that hurt like hell and that I didn’t see coming in spite of all the warnings. And yet the guy who hit me is likeable, yea, loveable. I like him. See Libby’s post for her report.

For starters, let’s just say I had what amounted to a willing disbelief that there would actually be a physical slap involved. The invitation I received was for arts administrators — officials in the world of art — to participate in a photo shoot called “You’ll never work in this town again” in conjunction with Collins’ exhibit in the gallery. The note said you would be slapped. Well what does that mean nowadays, an emotional browbeating or a real slap? I guess I’m just too postmodern for my own good. A slap means a slap. Hard, hurts, shocking.

(image is Collins’ “They Shoot Horses” video piece, from the Temple exhibit.)

But I was still in denial when we arrived, Libby and I, for our photo appointments, hers at 12:45 and mine at 1:15. We had just been on the POST trolley tour of some studios in Fishtown and Northern Liberties and I was in a cheerful this is going to be interesting and fun mood. But quickly it became apparent that there was physical slapping going on behind the partition wall in the ad hoc photo studio as one after another art world insider returned from the photo shoot with a broad red bloom across the left side of their face and neck, the skin aflame with blood after having been walloped.

I began to sweat. One slapee said she had a history of corporal punishment in her household growing up and that she had been very apprehensive. Collins was handing out wine and encouraging people to drink it, and she did. On my empty and very nervous stomach I didn’t want any. (image is Collins talking with Libby before her photo shoot — see pink arrow, she’s behind the person in the foreground.)

Two appointments later — I felt like I was in a doctor’s waiting room — I was really worried. Collins peeks around the wall and asks if I’m ready. Well, maybe. I drag myself in there, reject the wine idea. I know I’m really going to be slapped and I’m not happy but want to go through with it…why, why, I now wonder.

He ushers me in like he’s some kind of mother hen with a sick chick to take care of. Did I want wine? Would I like him to hold my glasses? No thanks, yes please. I sit and he gets very close, looks down and explains what he’s going to do and then he does it. It’s a ritual which includes one sentence, the counting to three and the slap: He says: “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you. One. two. three.” Silence, slap.

Now in all of this up to the slap there is an aspect of play acting that seemed quite child-like. Collins, who looks like a shaggy puppy, is hugely appealing and child-like. He’s also somewhat conspiratorial and so it feels a little like being one of two naughtly precocious children rehearsing a play that you’d later subject your parents to. But as soon as the slap occurs, we’re out of the realm of child’s play and into another zone entirely — one of conflict, passion, power, hurt, guilt and lots more.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the moment of physical shock to the body from a serious slap. I’m used to seeing Hollywood slapdowns and people always look like it’s no big deal. Well it’s not. A slap sounds like a gunshot and the physical sensation it causes at the moment of impact when skin touches skin is something like being hit unawares by an ocean wave and knocked underwater. You’re kind of knocked senseless. You are no longer in control of yourself. Your body is in control.

(image is Collins out of the studio for a minute before going back in)

During that time of shock is when the photos are snapped: it’s the common denominator moment of this project — the moment when each slapee is like all the others — a lump of cells and a beating heart with no individual personality showing because the body has taken over and is digesting the sting, the pain, the ringing in the ears. That shock moment is the one Collins is after.

In this documentary photo project Collins is creating his own world of conflict and cataloging it. And he’s showing how all humans, no matter where they sit in the greater hierarchy of things are basically alike — and are like every other sensate being on the planet. Stripped of our labels, props and defenses we’re all like children slapped in the face. Hierarchies fall away and only the camera (and its wielder) are in power.

It took me a weekend to stop obsessing about what the whole thing actually meant. I felt guilty and ridiculous and complicit and, as if I myself had done something violent and wrong. Of course that’s the Catholic in me. I feel guilty all the time. I felt a strong tie to the sweet person who thought up this project, one involving what is after all physical abuse, and wondered how he could do this. I felt bad for him. There’s a syndrome named for that state of identification with the abuser. But it wasn’t abuse was it? It was play acting and it was art.

But no matter how conceptual the project — and it is, of course, a cool, complicated conceptual art piece — there’s an emotional core as hot as molten lava.

One slapee I talked to afterwards compared the whole experience to a one night stand. You fall in love or at least enough in love to have your physical moment, and then it’s over.

Collins, who’s got the Irish gift of the gab, would wander out of the studio in between photo sessions to chat about this and that, and at one point he began cradling his right hand which clearly hurt. Who’s hurting whom? (image above is one Libby took when he was regrouping between shots. Next picture is one I took a moment later when he started clowning around and hiding from the cameras pointed at him.)

This is an artist whose camera mostly does not focus on the art world. As someone engaged by politics and by injustice in the world, Collins is obsessed with people and places in war-torn parts of the globe. He’s done projects in Kosovo, with Palestinians, in Bagdad before the Iraq War. But, as he explained in a highly poetic talk and slide lecture Monday night, what he most wants is to fall in love and to have you fall in love with him. And in project after project, the artist, like Don Juan with a camera, leaves a trail of people marked by the experience of being with him, an experience which has, in turn, marked the artist.

I’m putting aside all thoughts about this project now. I believe it’s one that, like all Collins’ projects, involves his voracious appetite for feeling, touching, loving and connecting with people. That’s good enough for me.

Collins is on a quest. He’s about community and he’s actually created a big community — call it the Phil Collins fan club. It’s people touched by him and his projects. His relentless pursuit of truth, love and connection is poignant. There’s beauty in his works and great empathy for the human condition. And while I’m happy I participated in the project and I’m very happy to have met this dear man, I want to say that I never want to see that picture of me — exhibit #237, critic, shocked out of her mind for the sake of art and for the sake of love.


The irony of Phil Collins’ search for love and the search by others to find him in the age of the internet is that the artist is all but invisible. Search on Google and you won’t find him easily. He’s hidden under the pages and pages of information about Phil Collins the singer. About 10 pages in to my search I found a couple links. Here’s the best one, it’s to his gallery, Kerlin Gallery, in Dublin. The page has lots of images from his various projects.


phil collins, temple gallery



Sign up to receive Artblog’s weekly newsletter and updates sent directly to your inbox.

Subscribe Today!