Phil Toledano: Jester of the Mundane

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Below is a back and forth between NY Florence students Batel Mann (who conducted the interview) and Kira Boden-Gologorsky (who filmed and edited the interview) regarding their impressions and opinions of Phil Toledano both in person and as an artist. Batel is in bold and Kira is in standard.

I was sitting on the couch with my legs crossed, nervously waiting. Considering I’d had no previous experience in interviewing, I was a bit nervous and wondered why I’d volunteered to do this in the first place.  I hastily took a breath and reminded myself that this was too great of an opportunity to pass up. As an aspiring filmmaker, both the conceptual and aesthetic qualities of Phil Toledano’s art fascinated me, and I couldn’t wait to pick his brain and find out where all of this creation comes from.

He approached 15 minutes late, shoulders slightly stooped as he walked up the pebble path to Villa Sassetti on the NYU Florence campus. I stood between the two cameras I had set up facing the couch, Batel seated on the right nervously fiddling with her fingers and adjusting her shirt.

“Sorry I’m an ass. I thought the interview was at 5:30!”

I replied, “We will forgive you for the lateness if you forgive us for our MacGyver tripod,” pointing towards the 4 foot tall cigarette stand with a pillow and a few books topped with my Canon Rebel T1i facing the couch outside the Villa.

As Kira casually broke the ice and introduced herself to the artist, I remained seated on the couch. I was awestruck. I finally stood up from my seat and introduced myself, extending my arm for a handshake. He was wearing a grey t-shirt and jeans, with a red belt and white Adidas sneakers.

Mr. Toledano then sat down on the couch outside of the Villa, and began to make small talk as we set up the interview. As I fiddled with my focus and sound, he joked about the angle of my lens. The banter led to his admission that in fact I was the professional here and, though his advice was well intentioned, I was really okay on my own.

He asked, “Batel, what kind of name is that?”. Batel revealed she was Israeli-American, but came from a Moroccan Jewish family, just like Toledano’s family. This lead to a chorus of “Wow, no way! The world is so small” comments echoing between Batel and myself.   

Not only were we of the same cultural background, but it turns out his mother lived in the city of Casablanca, where my grandparents grew up as well. We bonded over our shared heritage for a moment, and I wasn’t surprised when he initiated a fist bump.

His friendly demeanour surprised me given that Toledano’s art rarely screams comfortable. Many of Toledano’s recent works focus around fear; the fear he felt as a new father who didn’t automatically connect with his newborn, the fear of caring for a declining father only months after suddenly losing his mother, and the fear of the many possible ways in which he could age and leave the world. Toledano is an artistic explorer of anxiety, creeping through his existential nightmares with a camera in hand.

As I began the formal interview, Toledano mentioned how insane I probably thought he was for the type of subject matter his art pursues. I found myself constantly reassuring him that my opinion is the exact opposite. Not only do I regard his creative brilliance as top tier, I also personally admire his ability to bravely tread into the emotionally uncharted within his art.

This commitment to exploring fear isn’t what struck me most about Toledano. What struck me most was his humor. Laced between wise words about the freedom of youth and advice about exploring emotion through art, he would retort:

“Oh my god I sound like a grandfather!”

in a highly sarcastic tone “because I’m the MOST fascinating”

“No, really, actually it’s quite boring”

Here, I was confronted with another face of  Mr. Toledano — humility. I doubt that Toledano is wholly unaware of his talent. The self deprecation and humor cover up something, maybe his insecurity or discomfort with his own skill. Through exploring his fears and anxieties in his projects, it is clear that Toledano is able to let go of the weight of worry and grief he may have been harboring due to tragic personal events. He is lighthearted, funny, sarcastic, seemingly genuinely happy, and a bit cynical. He fundamentally understands the ways in which sadness can affect every facet of life, using its existence to grow towards fear instead of shrink into it.

Toledano has managed to demystify tragedy and embrace the anxieties of living. His work ushers in a collective sigh of “Whew! I thought only I thought like that”. In person, his humor and humility shine through brighter than in his greatest works. He stresses his mundanity and claims that this is what makes his art relatable. He is man brimming with wit, with ability to deflect and normalize his conditions to appeal to an audience and make comfortable those who feel alienated by his success.

Kira held her composure pretty well, actually, while I couldn’t help but let out a chuckle after about every other word he said. In between deep analysis of his motives, inner thoughts, feelings, and overall experiences, he manages to provoke laughter, inserting humor in the cracks of silence between this point and the next. The guy is hilarious. And very clever. You’ll just have to click play and see for yourself.

In Conversation with Phil Toledano from La Pietra Dialogues NYU on Vimeo.

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