Two weeks ago, Ryan McGinley nestled into a beanbag chair on a floating raft in the middle of Phang Nga Bay, a body of still, emerald-green water enveloped by vertiginous cliffs. Dusk had just cloaked the Thai horizon on that balmy evening in March, and little by little, specks of stars began to radiate through the night sky. The era-defining photographer sat next to Ole Scheeren, one of the world’s preeminent architects. Experimental musician and CBGB fixture Arto Lindsay was there. Actor and jewelry designer Waris Ahluwalia spoke in hushed tones to award-winning filmmakers Gregg Araki and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (everyone calls him Joe), who, along with Oscar-winning actor Tilda Swinton, had gathered together esteemed friends for their inaugural four-day arts festival, Film on the Rocks Yao Noi.
The journey from his Chinatown apartment to a pontoon in the middle of southern Thailand wore thin on McGinley, the chronicler of youthful abandon who, even though he’s now 34, remains the New York art world’s prodigal son. He’d flown from New York to Seoul, then from Seoul to Bangkok, then from Bangkok to Phuket, where he boarded a boat to Yao Noi, a quiet refuge from the sex tourism that plagues (and sustains) the island’s neighboring towns. As soon as night fell, however, all memory of his exhausting journey dissipated with the day’s heat. Floating on water in their majestic, makeshift Thai drive-in, they settled in for a screening of the 1903 version of Alice in Wonderland. Famed composer Simon Fisher Turner performed a score he’d written to accompany the film. “It was unreal. I was like, Wait, what’s happening?” says McGinley from a window table at Café Petisco in lower Manhattan. While he decides whether or not to order a beet salad, his seven assistants, only a few blocks away at his studio, are frantically readying the artist’s two new solo exhibitions at José Freire’s Team Gallery: “Animals,” portraits of “marmosets, turtles, and donkeys,” and “Grids,” photographs of concertgoers being transported to near ecstasy by their favorite bands.
Although the trip to Thailand was unlike anything he’d experienced before, “little adventures,” as he refers to them, are nothing new for McGinley, who typically spends six months out of every year in transit. Last fall, he flew to South Africa at Bono’s request to make a short film for the philanthropic rock star’s (RED) and ONE charities. When McGinley isn’t traveling on assignment, he spends most of his time putting together solo exhibitions at one of the many galleries that represent him: Team in New York, Ratio 3 in San Francisco, Alison Jacques Gallery in London, The Breeder in Athens, and Tomio Koyama Gallery in Tokyo. In a few days, he’ll travel to London to attend an art opening in support of Marc Hundley, a fellow Team Gallery artist and his on-and-off (currently off) boyfriend of 13 years. “I’m trying to have some Ryan time at the moment,” he says. “I definitely go on dates, but I’m pretty happy being single right now. I’m rarely home, anyway. Whoever I’m with is going to have to accept that I’m gone most of the time.”
Since becoming, at the age of 23, the youngest artist ever to have a solo show at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, McGinley has racked up a dizzying number of frequent-flier miles. In 2001, Index flew him to Berlin to take photos of Momus, an electronic musician and regular contributor to the magazine. (“I remember keeling over with stomach pains at the airport on my way there, so frightened that I might have to ask this guy to take his shirt off.”) From 2004 to 2006, he toured the U.S., Mexico, Scotland, England, Ireland, and Australia, taking commissioned pictures of Morrissey at hundreds of the rock icon’s shows across the world. He’s signed the sneakers of screaming fans in Japan. He’s dodged literal bullets in the Bible Belt. (“I’ve had run-ins with serious, Deliverance-style hicks, people who ride around on ATVs, screaming like good ol’ boys and firing shotguns into the air.”) He’s been pulled over by the police while photographing a group of naked teens riding around on Jet Skis in Lake Erie. (“The cops had no idea what was going on. We didn’t get arrested, but I got ticketed up the ass.”) He’s been stuck in the middle of a terrible hailstorm in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes during one of his now-infamous annual summer road trips, for which he, his team, and a handful of models cross the country taking nude photos in caves, atop mountains, and across expansive plains.
“I love photographing people nude,” says McGinley, who’s wearing a pair of jeans and a blue sweater zipped up to his neck. “I think most people look at it sexually, but I think everyone looks sexier with their clothes on. For me, making photographs is the least sexual thing ever.” Take Untitled (Bathtub) (2005), which, despite capturing five models—three men and two women—sandwiched together in a tub, gives the impression of a goofy slumber party rather than a ménage à cinq; or Christie (2010), in which the model’s exposed breasts are overshadowed by a dirty sling wrapped around her waist and affixed to her right arm; or The Boy With the Thorns in His Side (2011), a close-up of a male model’s scab-covered backside. These images, which are natural heirs to the work of Eadweard Muybridge, Diane Arbus, and Nan Goldin, are among the 150 photographs that appear in McGinley’s first major monograph, Ryan McGinley: Whistle for the Wind, out in June via Rizzoli New York. “The thought that my work might be titillating or shocking never crosses my mind,” he says.“But when people stumble upon me shooting stuff on the road, they’re usually like, ‘Are you filming a porno?’ A similar thing happens when I’m editing photographs next to someone on an airplane. I have a privacy screen now.”
Photography by Tim Barber