By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Voice Media Group
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It's been two years since Rodriguez's career took off at the Whitney Biennial, where he offered 45-minute "therapy" sessions inside a white cube at the Park Avenue Armory during his installation-performance piece, In the Beginning.
People could sign up online for the free sessions. "I would meet this random stranger waiting on a couch outside the cube," Rodriguez says.
He found himself facing attorneys, stockbrokers, teachers, and students. The cube space was equipped with two chairs, a coffee table — complete with a decorative cactus — and a clock on the wall, the typical accouterments of a therapist's office.
"Most people would come in and I would explain to them this was an art piece, and they would fidget in their chairs uncomfortably for the first 15 minutes," he says. "But after a while, most of them would loosen their guard after they figured I wasn't just some artist who was trying to dupe them. I would engage them sort of like this warm ear, and they began to open up and unload these emotional whoppers on me."
During the Whitney, he spoke with more than 100 people who taxed his emotions in a way he had never expected. His sessions became so popular that after the first of four weeks, he was booked solid and had to turn away the Whitney's director.
"It was grueling. After reaching a level of intimacy with these people after 15 to 20 minutes, almost like clockwork, they would lay some serious shit on me, like, 'My grandfather killed himself when I was a kid and I didn't go to the funeral and have felt guilty ever since,'" Rodriguez says. "I found myself holding back tears at times and would wake up crying in my hotel room for no reason every morning. It was as if I was purging everything I heard the day before."
The project received widespread critical acclaim. "After that, I didn't stop," Rodriguez says. "I literally had a project after that every month in a different city in the world. One month I'm in New York, the next month I'm in Paris, then in London, then in Berlin. Then I come back in time for Basel, and it's like bop, bop, bop," he says, snapping his fingers.
A few months after the Whitney, he gave art patrons, including Guardian critic Adrian Searle, ten-minute foot massages in a performance titled Where You End and I Begin at London's 2008 Frieze Art Fair.
Rodriguez's approach hasn't changed over the years: He thrives on unpredictability. It helps him handle the pressures of increasing critical and commercial success.
For his first solo exhibition at the Fredric Snitzer Gallery in 2001, Rodriguez filled the space with hand-crafted furniture and hired a feng shui priestess to display his work.
"That kind of put me on the map as some kind of artist," he says. "I had the feng shui priestess curate the furniture for me. It was my first show in a commercial gallery, and I thought that people in the class bracket that might buy the stuff just might be the sort to hire a feng shui person to display the work in their homes. I was just doing it proactively for them."
For those who might think Rodriguez is suffering from a swollen head, forget it. The self-deprecating artist remains a conceptual prankster known for knocking the starch out of the art world's stuffed shirts. He sits in his studio approaching his career like a plumber, accountant, or any other ordinary businessman.
If anything, the artist is more laid-back than when he began. But as it turns out, there's a story behind this — a near-tragedy in 2009.
Rodriguez was riding his bike to see Snitzer, zooming along, when a driver clipped him and sent him hurtling to the curb in front of the Bacardi Building on Biscayne Boulevard at NE 21st Street. As Rodriguez lay there, watching the front wheel of his bike spin to a stop, he poked a finger into a gaping head wound. Then he tore off his shirt to staunch the blood flow. The motorist never stopped.
Rodriguez was rushed to the hospital in critical condition with his back broken in three places and a nasty, half-moon laceration on his forehead reaching from ear to ear and requiring 47 stitches. Doctors told him it was a miracle he didn't end up paralyzed.
"I kept being told that if I would have landed a centimeter off at another angle, I could have spent the rest of my life in a wheelchair," he says. "I recovered miraculously fast and didn't have to undergo physical therapy or anything like that.
"Now my fear of death is so low," he says. "I have had this weird feeling that I'm not done yet. It's strange. It's like now I know that if something else happened to me, like losing an arm or something, I'd still be doing what I do, still making art somehow."
Rodriguez continued making art in his head while bedridden for several months. Afterward, he left postcards of his bald head at restaurants and lounges so strangers could alter his appearance and mail it back to be used in a book and an exhibit.