Robert Gill, a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design-Atlanta, just completed a grueling nine-month thesis project titled Before or After Yourself that tried his body, mind, and skill in photography and digital media. Many thought he was crazy for enduring physical pain for the project, but now, with his newly svelte body, this 28-year-old is living the dream: Gill is bringing his work to the hordes, earning press including a recent article in Esquire Russia and securing a spot at this year’s Art Basel.
Gill recently traveled through Atlanta to retrace his artistic origins before jetting off to begin his new position as a teacher’s assistant at Harvard University. We managed to nab Gill for a luxurious chat in a Kirkwood living room to talk about his latest project.
BURNAWAY: There has always been speculation on whether photography is a legitimate art form. What do you think makes a photograph art?
Robert Gill: Right, what’s a photograph nowadays anyway? What makes it good?
First you have to figure out if you’re making art or commerce. If you’re making something to sell for the intent of selling, that can be photography too, and you can have great photographs, but it’s another thing to make an art photograph.
I guess what I look for is something honest from people. I think I’ve always had a good alarm [for] knowing if something is fake or contrived. You develop that and you fine tune that through school. So, I think sincerity is the best thing; making something that’s actually a part of you that you’re actually interested in.
What subjects are you most interested in photographing?
It’s interesting. Living in New York and growing up in Pennsylvania, I’m interested in blue-collar things or more rural things. [When I lived in New York City] I thought, there is nothing here I want to photograph even though it’s a photographer’s playground.
So why did you move to New York City? Because it’s the “thing to do?”
Yeah, it was. I got two associate degrees when I was in my early 20s and went straight to New York and thought I’d do great. I was working at a modeling agency doing their in-house stuff. It was terrible; I was really fighting for my paychecks. I lived there for six years, and I don’t think I’ll ever go back.
What do you think has been your most successful project?
I go back and forth between things I can control and things I can’t. I do documentary work and journalism where it’s something I can’t control; the story will guide itself and I’m just there to watch it carry on. And then there’s these other projects I have that everything is hand-tailored by me. I get bored if I do one thing more than the other. I think the most recent work, Before or After Yourself, is my favorite.
Why did you decide to do Before or After Yourself?
That goes back to doing something that’s honest and a part of you. Wanting to make something a lot of people could relate to, in this case physical appearance.
[When I was] growing up, I was a larger kid and got made fun of a lot, and even now maybe there are lingering issues. [But] I didn’t want to necessarily make the project about that. I don’t think people look at it and think “this guy has an image complex.” [Or] maybe they do; that would be interesting.
I was inspired by other forms of media, before and after images. They’re used in advertising—the comparison image—and there is no space in the middle. It’s just a before and after, and it’s kind of a magical transformation that takes place and you don’t know how or why. I wanted to give the viewer more information in making the videos.
What made it so difficult?
The transformation? It was almost impossible; what I put myself through in the past nine months was insane. If I didn’t get my body to a certain point where I thought it was good enough to be a striking transformation, then the project wouldn’t be a success. It’s a lot of pressure: You don’t know if your genetics will even do it.
How did you decide the project was over?
It was a duration performance. I knew I had to have this done in nine months and inside of that container you can put whatever you want in that nine months. I like thinking of time as a container.
Do you still keep up with the same regimen?
I was exhausted, honestly. I’ve taken the summer to run and keep active and play sports here and there, but I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the same regimen. It was 6AM, wake up and run, two or three workouts a day, not going to the gym ever. It was important to me to keep it outside and keep it interesting. Running on treadmills doesn’t make sense to me.
Were there ever days when you stayed in bed and ate chocolate cereal?
A lot of it was a liquid diet of protein shakes and things like that. There were five months out of the nine that I’d fast for ten days in a row. There were definitely days I didn’t have time but it was such a big thing and so much was riding on the nine months that I had to be really hard on myself and be mad at myself if I didn’t make time for it. I’m pretty good at sticking with something.
We hear you’re in Art Basel this year.
I got picked up by a gallery for Before or After Yourself which is always fun because it’s packed down there, and there is limited space so I have to reconfigure the installation. It was in a pretty large space the first time it was shown. I’m running into a problem with it because every time I show it, it has to be in a different format.
Ideally there would be multiple screens. It’s going to show in New York on an 80-x-120-foot screen in public, and I have to figure that out because the photos can’t be there. Maybe the photos will flash before and after the films.
Some people have told me the pictures don’t need to be there at all, or the videos. Everyone has their own ideas about this project. I think it works so well to have them there side by side because the before and after creates a kind of anxiety, and the videos are kind of a comic relief and [provide the viewer] answers.
What’s your spirit animal?
I’d say I don’t really have one which is kind of a cop-out to the question. I’d have to say if there’s something my spirit is attached to, it’s wind. It’s my spirit weather force. I’m a sailor and I want to make art about wind. [After that] I’d say maybe a bird. I think I’ve wasted every birthday wish I’ve had on wanting to fly.
What are some photographers you’re inspired by?
I guess in history I really enjoy Andre Kertesz. I love Alec Soth but I’d say a lot of people will say that. Andy Goldsworthy isn’t a photographer [but I like his work]. One person who has seen my project so far related it to [Goldsworthy], and I didn’t think the connection was there for other people to see. That was just the best compliment.
After living in New York City, Atlanta, and now Boston, what do you think is important for emerging artists to grow and work?
I think in an art community the best thing to have around is [diversity]. My grad school program was only photography and only MFA; the undergrads were on a different floor, and we never saw or talked to them.
Here in Atlanta, at SCAD, all my best friends were painters and print makers and a few photographers. Just having an interdisciplinary approach to learning art is definitely a lot more powerful than sticking to one thing.
What’s your favorite thing about Atlanta?
I guess the sense of community. I was really lucky to make great friends. There are tons of artists here, some of my favorite artists.
Atlanta Art Crush is an interview series brought to you by Susannah Darrow, Laura Hennighausen, and photographer Sandy Hooper. Look for profiles of our latest heartthrobs on the last Friday of each month.