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Filmmaker John Waters explores new career path in Walker show

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John Waters stands among works of art after Waters intervened on the collection at the Walker Art Center as he assembled the exhibit "Absentee Landlord" in Minneapolis, Minn. Thursday, June 9, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Filmmaker and writer John Waters, known for his counterculture work, takes a new turn this weekend with the opening of "Absentee Landlord," a show he's curated at the Walker Art Center. 

Waters, who's made underground cult classics such as the infamous "Pink Flamingos" and popular hits such as "Hairspray," said the Walker challenged him to choose pieces from its collection and put them together in interesting ways. 

"So I tried to be an absentee landlord and see who could live together," he said.

Waters anthropomorphized freely for this show, seeing the works as living, breathing entities to be mixed and matched.

"It's like a dating service to see who will roommate together" he said. "It's like when you go to college together and you fill out a little questionnaire and then you ends up with a roommate. It was always disastrous for me. I always got people they thought I would be like and I hated them. But I think these are coexisting pretty well the first day. We'll see once the public get in, if they'll get in any fights or anything." 

It's like entering an art jungle.  

Waters is best known for celebrating the seamy underbelly of society. Yet he admits to having been a contemporary art fanatic since he was young.

"The first artwork I ever bought was, I was eight or nine years old, I bought a Miro print at the museum library for a dollar, and hung it in my bedroom," he said. "And all the other kids went 'Ugh, that's disgusting!' and I knew 'Oh, the power of art is great here.'" 

Waters said in the show he wanted to mix humor with art he loves. He walks to a doorway covered by a black curtains which he said open up to what he describes as a 'really great video' called "Flooding McDonald's" by an artist going by the name "Superflex." 

It's a 20-minute video of a McDonald's restaurant slowly filling with several feet of water. It's weirdly mesmerizing, and Waters hopes inspirational.

"Maybe if this is the success that I hope it will be they could do 'Flooding the Walker,'" he smiles. Standing behind him a Walker staff member looks mildly distressed. 

Waters is now on a roll. He heads towards a piece by an artist whose name he can't quite pronounce. It takes him three attempts and a couple of prompts to get Gedi Sibony's name right. But he loves the piece in question. It's a large cardboard structure which reminds Waters of the forts he used to make growing up in Baltimore.

"I like art that confronts people, that angers people at first," he admits. "And a lot of people might look at that and say 'Well, my kid could do that.'" 

Waters rolls his eyes in mild disgust. "Yeah, but he didn't, stupid. That's the dumbest comment I ever heard." 

And off he goes again. There are readily recognizable pieces from the Walker collection. And there are a few others he's brought in, including one in a side room that's really creepy. It's what Waters describes as a mad bomber's work desk, covered with batteries, timers and partially completed explosive devices.

"To me this piece ... is right before the cops got here," Waters said. "So it's really frightening, and beautiful." 

And disturbingly interesting in its detail.  Waters is all about detail, and has left his imprint all over the Walker.

"I have structurally altered the bathroom," he grins. "I have the sound of car crashes outside the garage, I did the art talk on earphones in Pig Latin."

He even designed a Blue Plate Special for the restaurant.

"Which is meat gristle, potato eyes and the ends of vegetables cut-off," he smiles.  

And it's on the menu for just $150. 

Waters will perform his sold-out one-man show "This Filthy World" Friday night at the Walker, and then "Absentee Landlord" opens Saturday. Waters said he got almost everything he wanted done. Almost.

"I wanted to let everybody in free and make them pay to get out," Waters said. "But we couldn't figure, because of the way it's set up how to make that work. That was the only thing." 

But maybe next time. When asked if this might be a new career, Waters said he's always believed you can never have too many careers.