Selfies at the Center of the Universe

Artist Cyril Duval (aka Item Idem) Unlocks the Spiritual Secrets of Times Square

  • Interview: Thom Bettridge
  • Photography: Cyril Duval
  • Styling: Mark Jen Hsu

“Times Square is the center of the world... Or maybe it's the asshole of the world," artist Cyril Duval says, looking 300 feet down at the packed pedestrian traffic on Broadway. “It’s like this crazy vortex.”

Traveling the world in search of consumerist treasures, Cyril Duval (aka Item Idem) creates work that explores how logos can live a life independent of their makers. 19 floors above the chaos of Times Square, Duval has been installed as a member of Work in Progress, a contemporary art residency located in an office building on Broadway. There, he has been exploring projects using cardboard replicas of branded objects—from toothpaste containers to Louis Vuitton bags—that are burned as part of funeral ceremonies in China. The location is a perfect match for the artist’s work. It is a shrine to capitalism, visited by 26 million tourists annually. After unloading multiple inflatables, his personal library, and a mini Jeff Koons dog from an Uber XL three weeks prior, Duval has been using his cubicle to plan a potential documentary. In an ode to Times Square, the artist hit the streets with stylist Mark Jen Hsu to photograph himself in looks from Kenzo, Comme des Garçons Homme Plus, and Gosha Rubchinskiy.

Thom Bettridge

Cyril Duval

What has it been like spending so much time in Times Square?

I wish I had spent more time here at night when the lights are really dystopian and crazy looking. I lived in Japan for many years, so I’m used to that. But this is crazy.

So tell me about what you’re working on here. These sculptures you have kind of remind me a little of natural history objects.

Yes, I’m interested in presenting them as sort of fossilized still lives. Memento mori for eternity. Are you familiar with these objects?

Tell me about them.

In the south of China, they use these objects in the funeral environment and funeral culture. I’ve been working with them for a long time.

So are they replicas?

They’re nicely made cardboard replicas of daily life objects. There are Louis Vuitton shoes, there are guns and food, and even stuff that relates to when you were old, right before you died. So it’s like separating every aspect of life. Even stuff for children, and cigarettes—

And they’re used for funerals?

Yes, offered and burned. Two years ago I did a film with Cheng Ran, JOSS, where we set all those object types on fire—a lot of fire technics. Now I think I’ve finally found an interesting way to frame them into sculptures. What I’m most interested in is how they relate to consumers and spirituality at the same time.

Do you find a lot of these things when you’re traveling?

I’ve sourced many through my travels, and I’m trying to go back in July to do a residency project in Shenzhen. It’s in the south of China, by the Pearl River Delta, so that’s Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Macao. I might go to these factories and produce a documentary on my own about how they are made, why they are made, how it connects to people and to the economy. Because we are talking about ancient Chinese customs, but that has changed with Western entrance. It was never about product and consumerism—before, it would be the image of your ancestors, or little calligraphy papers. Interestingly, these objects all made by machines now. And so they’re all going to look exactly the same, it’s somewhat standardized.

And these types of objects—people call them bootleg objects or fakes—but they also have their own aura, right?

I did work with the Shanzhai products for many years. But I guess those are more iconic and more specific, and I don’t see them in terms of intellectual property and copyright infringement. For me, it’s about the spiritual world, which I found really fascinating. Somehow, they become more noble. And at the same time they’re also sort of taboo. For example, in the Christian culture, if you were fucking with a crucifix, you would be considered deranged. And for Chinese people, playing with those objects or simply owning them is not really cool. You’re not shocking them, but it’s like bad mojo, bad feng shui, you know? I don’t get superstitious, but maybe I should! [Laughs]

How far do you have to change something before it stops being a bootleg and becomes its own thing? For example, this baby outfit that’s obviously a reference to a Louis Vuitton monogram. But instead of those circles it has these Mickey Mouse cutouts.

That’s exactly the difference between counterfeit and Shanzhai products. Emulation of luxury—trying to replicate a brand image and then just making it cheap. Whereas the Shenzhen Shanzhai are just a whole different story, bold and playful in their essence. You would never believe that baby outfit is either Disney or Louis Vuitton. And sometimes, you’ll have a good product, with five different branded imageries mixed together. I have some stuff that uses Calvin Klein, Angry Birds, and Kmart all together, as one pattern.

I’m super interested in this idea of spirituality. Because in a way, the logos have a talismanic quality.

My own personal take—without any historical content behind it—is just based on the way Chinese people collect logos and branded images in a very different way than us. Like symbols of the wealth of the West and of prosperity. One of the junctions I’ve seen in logos many times is with the Apple logo. For example, jeans that say, “An apple a day takes the doctor away.” Wealth is translated into health, like financial wealth and financial health, and the health of a company. I think there’s always something in those brand values, and the way they are triggered into being something cool.

I wonder what the opposite of a logo is. Because in a way, blankness is its own type of logo.

I would tend to say instantly—at least in terms of design—a pattern, like a Missoni. Or how the power of Louis Vuitton’s spatial arrangement is really strong. It’s like color arrangement and color blocks. Like with Tommy Hilfiger and Prada, there are always two or three colors. A monogram is like a pattern, but it’s close to a logo, and by then it’s also moving into advertising culture. Like how a Calvin Klein campaign needs to look like a Calvin Klein campaign. For the past 20 years. It’s a super strong recipe, which is fascinating. Like look at the My Calvins thing, you can see the storyline from the 80s and Kate Moss, and now Justin Bieber’s crotch.

It’s funny, because it’s the same thing that goes back to Marky Mark.

It’s totally the same. Hot man, big crotch, My Calvins. I just did the hashtag.

My Calvins was like the hashtag before hashtags.

I just think it’s extremely efficient.

Calvin Klein is such an interesting brand. Because the high-end wing of it has this greyscale, luxury dialogue with contemporary dressing, and the bottom consumer scale of it is slutty underwear with waistbands.

It touches down again to this counterfeit industry. Who doesn’t wear Calvin Klein underwear? And the perfumes, and the licensing. I feel like this brand is so future.

  • Interview: Thom Bettridge
  • Photography: Cyril Duval
  • Styling: Mark Jen Hsu