Artist James Ostrer’s alter ego Guru Jimmy attempts to heal America’s political divide in a series of hilarious and profound Uber chats.

Artist James Ostrer’s alter ego Guru Jimmy attempts to heal America’s political divide in a series of hilarious and profound Uber chats.

The 2016 US presidential election has left Americans – and the rest of the world – scratching their heads in dismay. America is more polarised than ever and struggling to agree on even the most basic facts. As the rhetoric on the campaign trail ramps up and ordinary people find it incredibly difficult to tolerate views from the other side of the aisle, politics has become little more than each opposing side putting their fingers in their ears and shouting as loud as they can. The art of political conversation and debate has long fallen by the wayside.

To cut through the madness and bring a bit of sanity and understanding back to America’s discussion of its future is Guru Jimmy, a post-Goa prophet of enlightenment and self-improvement. The alter ego of London-based artist James Ostrer, Guru Jimmy’s Uberlife series is filmed in the style of James Corden’s viral internet sensation, Carpool Karaoke and is a collection of conversations with, you guessed it, Uber drivers, about politics and the state of the nation. What sets it apart from other talking heads discussions is Guru Jimmy’s sage-like approach to finding common ground and compromise with his subjects, in a bid to heal the rifts that are driving the nation apart.

Guru-Jimmy-hollywood

“Guru Jimmy began as a private joke between me and my mother,” James explains. “I have suffered from anxiety and depression for around 20 years, and when I was 18 she told me I should go to India to find a guru and discover myself – which was ironic because at the time I suffered from severe agoraphobia and could barely leave the house. I never went to India but after dropping about 20 grand on self help programmes, I discovered that everything boils down to dealing with your own core. Guru Jimmy is a satirical character, but also a mentor to me in terms of self improvement.”

Guru Jimmy announced his presence to the world at the 2014 Venice Biennalle, but was given a new sense of purpose after Britain’s divisive and xenophobic Brexit campaign. “I decided to come out to Hollywood post-Brexit because I really felt there was a conquering divide and a huge increase in racism on both sides of the Atlantic,” he says. “It disturbed me so much to see Trump sprouting the same poisonous rhetoric as Farage in the UK, but Trump was taking things to a new level, a steroidal racism. He’s reading from the Hitler playbook, of playing the racist blame game to trick people into thinking they’re achieving something.”

(Miley Cyrus), ED 110M

(Miley Cyrus), ED 110M

James’ Ego System project was a challenge to this flavour of bullshit – and challenged us to look beyond the propaganda that surrounds celebrities and major political figures. Inspired by John Updike’s dictum that celebrity is a mask that eats its own face, James created a series of effigies that expose the seediness and lies under the surface. He represented Tiger Woods, Kim Kardashian, Kanye West and Donald Trump, who’s constructed from a honey blonde bouffant hairpiece, a real pig’s snout, actual sheep eyes, raw fish, crude oil, rubble that has been gold leafed, an inverted pig’s rib cage, a half eaten croissant and a mass produced high street suit.

(Donald Trump), ED 213M

(Donald Trump), ED 213M

But the reaction to Ego System was predictably divided down party lines, which convinced him to take a different approach to confront America’ political polarisation head on. So, what could Guru Jimmy have to contribute in such dark times? “I guess initially I just wanted to encourage people to turn out and vote,” he explains. “But after seeing the reaction to Ego System, I realised the meme-y, partisan propaganda wasn’t really achieving anything. I realised I had to do something that would bring people together, not drive them further apart.”

Carla 3

Uberlife was a rejection of the divisive narratives fed to us by politicians and the mainstream media. In conversations a Southern-bred Trump supporters raised in a climate of generational racism, a policeman and  Iraq veteran whose best friends were blown up in a roadside bomb, an African-American feeling the sharp end of gentrification in LA, Jimmy attempted to be a bridge of peace and understanding.

“The objective was not to come out here and vilify Trump supporters,” James says. “It was to empathise and find the human connection. What I discovered that was everyone’s needs all boiled down to the same things: love and security. I wanted to reveal the real American people, because they all share the same interests. If they joined together they would rise up against the forces who divide them to maintain political control.”

James Ostrer’s Ego System work is on show at Gazelli Art House, London until 14 November. Guru Jimmy’s Uberlife is online now.

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