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House Tour | Nayland Blake

By Coco Romack

When Nayland Blake’s ever-expanding vinyl collection threatened to take over their railroad-style one-bedroom apartment in the Flatbush neighbourhood of Brooklyn, the artist and educator, who uses “they” and “them” pronouns, transformed the 2,500 or so records into an immersive installation. Blake, whose work explores the fluidity of race and gender, has long been an accumulator as much as a creator. The resulting multimedia assemblage, “Ruins of a Sensibility 1972-2002,” is currently installed at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles within the exhibition “No Wrong Holes,” the largest survey of the artist’s three-decade career to date, where it functions as an interactive self-portrait of sorts. There is a D.J. booth where visitors can sign up to play records from the collection, including rare albums from the likes of the Afrofuturist Sun Ra Arkestra.

Blake, 59, is a self-professed “borderline hoarder,” whose penchant for holding onto things (tobacco pipes, a dog-chewed postcard from John Waters) has become a curatorial exercise unto itself. “There’s a particular way that culture is articulated in museums and galleries,” Blake says, “but then there’s another way that we all experience it through the stuff that we put in our houses.” It’s no surprise, then, that Blake’s 1,100-square-foot home, where they have lived for the past 17 years, is crammed floor-to-ceiling with kitschy novelties and personal totems. The native New Yorker has been represented by Matthew Marks Gallery since 1993, and their career is marked by sexually charged sculptures featuring stuffed animals; life-size edible gingerbread house assemblages; and visceral, durational performances that draw upon the visual language of kink, which Blake uses as a tool to meditate on the complex nature of queer and racial identities. “I look at the things that I do in a kink context with other people as being as much my art as the thing that gets shown in a gallery,” Blake says. “The aim, for me, is the same in both — to be able to come to some sort of self-understanding.”

Throughout the apartment, bunny figurines of varying materials, some made by Blake and others gifts, echo the animal’s recurring appearance in the artist’s work. (In the video piece “Starting Over,” for example, Blake tap dances inside a 146-pound bean-filled rabbit suit until they collapse from exhaustion.) Atop their bed, which sits just inches from the drafting table, rests a crocheted re-creation of Gnomen, the gender-transcendent bear-bison “fursona” (as human-animal avatars are known in the furry fandom subculture) that Blake once dressed as to greet visitors at the New Museum in New York. Throughout their work, Blake evokes a sense of fantasy and play through transformative costuming, and among the treasures in their makeshift walk-in closet — an entire curtained-off room in the center of the apartment — are a candy-hued stack of trucker hats, a knot of studded belts, ball-gags and leather floggers and a PVC raincoat with a hood shaped like a pig’s head from the Belgian designer Walter Van Beirendonck’s fall 2018 collection.

Just off Blake’s living room, through a doorway festooned with a garland of multicolour pipe cleaners made at one of their craft parties, is their archive, a library jammed with old journals and art books. “A lot of what I have in my house is work that friends of mine have made that we’ve sort of traded for,” Blake says, noting that collecting, for them, particularly as a queer person who lived through the AIDS crisis, is “an act of love” — and of preservation. “How is this stuff going to perpetuate itself? How are we going to bring these things forward? It doesn’t function online. You have to hold things.” Highlights of their art collection include a portrait in nail polish by Jerome Caja, a painter and performer known for using materials such as eyeliner and human ashes, and a photogram from the graphic artist Rex Ray, which juxtaposes an ivory bust with a butt plug. Navigating Blake’s apartment feels, at times, akin to interacting with one of their immersive sculptures: When viewed as a whole, the home becomes a monument. “The only way that queer or marginalized cultures survive is through somebody loving them and somebody acting as the curator of their own museum,” Blake says. “That kind of intimate culture is just as valid as the high cultures that museums often traffic.”