Artist Bill Tonnesen is No Stranger to Controversy


Photos by Nat Kassel unless otherwise noted

Next to Bill Tonnesen’s front door, there is a pair of mannequin legs bound by rope, a realistic model of a baby and a cow’s jawbone encased in glass.

Tonnesen’s assistant Emma has told me to let myself in, walk through to the backyard, past the pool, and head to the office out the back. On the way through, I pass a row of cattle skulls, a perfectly manicured lawn, a sculpture of a naked woman partly draped in a sheet, and a container filled with empty shotgun shells, amongst many other oddities.

Tonnesen is a landscape architect by trade but is perhaps better known for his sculptures, which are slightly haunting and macabre. To give you an idea, they’re usually life-sized human figures that might be clutching a weapon, a musical instrument or partially covering themselves with a blanket. But perhaps the most striking thing about them is their placement: you’ll find one perched up on someone’s roof, adorning a mailbox, or ‘hiding’ in the bushes of someone’s yard. They’re all over Tempe, the relatively-small city in Arizona where Tonnesen lives.

At six foot six, Tonnesen towers over me, dressed in all white and joined by his personal assistant and a videographer he’s commissioned to make a documentary about his next project. He’s warm and jovial and keen to tell me all about Chocolate Kake, the venue for experiential art that he’s planning to open in Phoenix, Arizona later this year.

Photo by Jason Roehner

I’m given a bottle of water and led to an all-white dinner-table setting, replete with mannequins, model-cakes and a fat pile of money in the middle. Tonnesen, now in his sixties, looks at the rolls of bills and, with a perfectly straight face, begins insinuating that I’ve stolen a roll of his money. “Emma,” he calls out to his assistant, “was he in here alone at any point before I arrived?” Just as straight-faced, she answers that I wasn’t. The room feels slightly tense for a second, before Tonnesen looks me in the eye and says, “I’m going to have to ask you to take off all your clothes.” I laugh on cue and the ice is broken.

Quirk is something that I knew to expect from Tonnesen. He’s been the subject of a few scathing articles in the local press over the years, one of which describes his “colossal ego” and “disdain for rules”. Another, titled Illusions of Grandeur, details a project where he attempted but ultimately failed to design and build the biggest Holocaust Memorial in the world. (The author pointed out that he’s not Jewish and that Arizona wouldn’t be the ideal place to have the biggest Holocaust memorial in history.) Then there was his sculpture of a woman, naked and obese, that he had perched on the wall of one of his properties, which happened to be just across the road from a church. He ended up on the TV news trying to explain himself for that one.

Photo by Jason Roehner

“I’m always in trouble,” says Tonnesen casually. “I don’t enjoy it, I just want people to let me do what I want to do.” But he admits that some of the scandals have taken their toll. “It was rough,” he says of the debacle with the sculpture. “But I was more worried about my wife… she lay in bed crying, she was miserable.”

It kind of makes sense that the residents of a small city in Arizona would be confronted by Tonnesen’s art; after all, it’s definitely confronting and he puts it right out in the front yards of all the properties he owns. “I don’t want to scare people but I want to do something that’s interesting,” he explains. “I don’t see myself in candy-cane land at Christmas time… I’m inclined to go dark, rather than happy.”

One figure—a body-cast of Tonnesen himself—sits in a cage with gauze bound across the nose and mouth. It’s been placed at the end of a short tunnel, which serves as the entry to a small, ground level apartment complex. In order to get in, you have to walk down the tunnel towards the creepy statue, then push against one of the unmarked doors to the left or right. Visitors to the building regularly have issues with it, which is probably the point.

But it’s a scene that makes you wonder: Who would want this in the entry to their house? The short answer is that Tonnesen owns the building and one of his sons lives there. A landscape architect by trade, Tonnesen has worked his way up to a point where he’s buying properties, renovating them and flipping them for a profit. As a result, the neighbourhood is littered with his work. In fact, if you see a house with his art in the yard, he probably either owns it or used to own it. “We have this kind of backend entry to getting a bunch of your artwork displayed,” says Emma, his assistant.

“The word ‘artist’, I don’t like,” says Tonnesen. “And people that say, ‘I’m an artist’. I kind of go, ‘Yeah, right. How was it that you awarded yourself that title?’” These days, Tonnesen’s attitude to the art scene is almost disdainful. But it wasn’t always this way. Back in 2002, he wrote and published a book called Tonnesen: Twelve Months to Fame and Fortune in The Art World. The concept was that he would spend a year working on art and try to get his work displayed in a solo show. According to him, “I was sort of successful, I made 100 of these panels and I got in the best gallery in town… so the book is about that.” (One article from 2005 countered, “there’s no doubt that Tonnesen failed to accomplish that.”)

But what Tonnesen really learned is that there’s no money in fine art. “You can’t sell artwork. When have you ever seen anybody sell artwork? Go to a gallery, go talk to the artist and say, ‘How much money did you make tonight?’” says Tonnesen. “If you’re very, very clever with marketing, you have a tiny minuscule chance of ever making any money. But otherwise it’s just not the way to make money.” Evidently real estate and landscape architecture—with a few sculptures thrown in—are a much safer bet.

When I ask Tonnesen about his current projects, he grabs a felt-tipped pen and writing pad and starts compiling a list. “At the top is one thing that’s bigger than all the rest combined,” he says dramatically. “And that is Chocolate Kake. It’s a big deal.” From what I can gather, Chocolate Kake will be a modern gallery space with a major focus on creating interactive and experiential installations. Tonnesen already owns the building and will have creative control over six different exhibition rooms, each with a different theme. It’s set to be filled with some of his most provocative and confronting work yet.

The idea isn’t exactly original. As Emma explains, “There’s now this trend where, instead of going to traditional museums and galleries, people our age are interested in more of an experience, something that’s interactive.” The two of them show me photos of spaces in LA and New York with names like The Museum of Ice Cream and The Happy Place, explaining that these interactive pop-up gallery venues are becoming wildly popular, in some cases selling tens of thousands of tickets in a matter of hours.   

Tonnesen says, “What Emma and I have both noticed is… bright colours, smiling, laughing people, young girls in pastels. I would say Disney-themed environments seem to be the driving force amongst our competitors.”

But obviously with Bill Tonnesen at the helm, Chocolate Kake will be something much darker and more confronting. There’s talk of having paid actors who’ll sucker people into awkward social situations, but Tonnesen doesn’t want to reveal too many of the details just yet. “It takes this entire spectrum of things that we’ve been involved with for many years and it brings them all together into one thing.”

So, when you run a project like this, are you the one who calls the shots? I ask him.

He smiles, “Are you kidding me, hombre?”

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