Masked and anonymous, Narcissister undresses identity politics in ways other artists cannot. Her constantly evolving practice explores race, gender, age and female sexuality with humor and spectacle, and through the signature plastic covering affixed to her face, she can strip down to an essential self that represents far more than the body before you.
As much at home in the white walls of a gallery as in a sweaty, dimly lit nightclub, Narcissister’s neo-burlesque performances have been lauded by The New York Times, Paper Magazine and Vice. She was named a “topless feminist superhero” by The Huffington Post, and it’s no coincidence that one of her best known pieces is performed to Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman.” Filling her orifices with costumes for the act (which are expertly removed throughout), and redefining “every woman” as a lithe, living mannequin sporting a voluminous afro, she affirms that it is all in her. Narcissister’s work positions her as both young and old, beauty and beast, man and woman, and she becomes all of us, too. Like the title of her ongoing group performance suggests, “Narcissister Is You.”
Recently, Slutist spoke at length about these issues with the artist known as Narcissister in her studio. We sipped home brewed tea and discussed the power of performing behind a mask, her storied artistic background, her spiritual path, and her new work, including an upcoming film and performance, “Baby Lady.”
Narcissister’s work will be part of a feminist art exhibition, Beaver on April 30th in Brooklyn at The Center For Performance Research, produced and curated by Naomi Elena Ramirez with assistance by yours truly.
How do you feel about the criticisms particularly directed at female artists who use their body in their work that this kind of practice makes them “less than” artists who don’t?
I don’t have any other recourse. This is the kind of work that I’m drawn to make, and I really admire the kind of work where the artist’s feminism, their femininity, and their politics are well beneath the surface. Everything is so exposed in mine, almost to a point that makes me cringe, but there’s no other way for me. Whether my work is seen as ‘less than’ because of its craft aesthetic, because of the use of my body, because I’m a woman making it, I’d just have to accept that and be grateful for the opportunities that I do get for showing it and talking about it.
I think what I find interesting in my work is that it’s not about me, Isabelle, as a woman. It’s not narrowly narcissistic in those ways. I think that what I’m doing in my work is critiquing that kind of work. The kind of work you’re saying is derided by the art establishment, that’s about one woman’s body, one woman’s experience. I agree that kind of work can be limited and frustrating and its easy to dismiss it. My work is a critique of that kind of work and puts it into a different category. I’m really inspired by these 70s era feminist artists using their bodies to tell their own stories. I think that that work now has so much power and longevity. I don’t know at this time what kind of work feels essential for telling that story. Maybe mine does in some ways, and maybe, for example, Leah Schrager’s does.
How often have you involved other people in your Narcissister performances?
Most of it is just me, but I started fairly early on incorporating other people into the project. I did one at The Kitchen called “This Masquerade” and there were extra Narcissisters in that show who were very carefully choreographed. Then that show moved to Abrons, and I was invited by Jay Wegman to do a new show, and that show also incorporated sisters.
That’s what you call them?
Yeah, they’re men and women.
Oh there’s men?
Yes. At first I would pick very androgynous men, and then I created this project that’s about other people embodying the character of Narcissister called “Narcissister Is You,” where there are some men who have undeniably male bodies who have taken part in that. I realized with the mask, anyone could embody or portray the character. And also for me, I embody so many types of people as Narcissister — older women, younger women, stripper women, matronly women, pregnant women, fat women, and I portray men, and different kind of men — there’s been a lot of range, and so I thought I could extend that so there’s a range of different people who could embody the character, too. Or be an extension of my embodiment of the character.
The word “narcissism” has transformed for me when thinking of your work. What does narcissism mean to you? Does it even exist to you?
I really was just looking for a clever name. So I wasn’t thinking so much about narcissism. The first performance that I made is called “The Mannequin.” I am onstage with a mannequin and we’re both wearing the exact same outfit. It’s a little hard for me to watch that piece at this point because my work is so multi-layered now, but that’s OK. I was working on that piece before I even chose the Narcissister name, so I guess these ideas around explicit narcissism were in my head. But I really was looking for a catchy name. I was very influenced by the burlesque model at that time where everyone had names that they chose.
But what narcissism is to me now? I’ve just been thinking so much about how my work is tied to my spiritual practice, and trying to understand the more oppressive experiences of narcissism within the self, compared to the more expansive possibilities of a radical narcissism or a true and real self-love. I do think that they run parallel. I think that when one is narcissistic in ways that are oppressive, that’s a strategy for getting what one is wanting which backfires and is problematic. But then there’s that desire for a whole self or a desire for love or for community. Desire to feel that one’s needs matter. All these things are healthy, it’s just the strategies in the more complicated version of narcissism are wrong and often ineffective. It gets very complicated and twisted. I’ve been realizing more and more as I sort these things out for myself as a person I am really able sort it out through my work.
That makes me think of words like “self-centered,” “self-involved,” that have a really negative valence, but when you break them down, it’s like, why is it wrong to want to be centered in yourself?
Maybe there’s just different steps to the process. I think true liberation means not being centered in the self, but I think in order to get to that point there has to be some burrowing into the self to gain a fuller understanding. But the idea of enlightenment as totally letting go of the self is really interesting to me. Again, I feel I am able to practice that with Narcissister because she doesn’t exist. If I don’t animate her, or if somebody doesn’t animate her, it’s just a mask on the floor of my studio. Speaking of narcissism in the way we cling to these notions of ourselves and who we are, and demand that people confirm that for us, I think that that’s what gets tricky. And with Narcissister, not only do I embody all these different identities, I very quickly and very gracefully shed them. There’s no self behind any of it. I love this concept of stripping away layers which could be seen to reference burlesque or striptease, but again I see it as a spiritual path. Stripping away your identities to arrive at some essential self, or to go even further, a non-self, represented by the mask and my naked body. I think the intention is that I’m coming back to my essential self by shedding these different identities. And/or I’m acknowledging or attempting to reach towards this concept of enlightenment, meaning there being no self.
It’s similar to Judith Butler’s ideas in Gender Trouble about gender as a social performance which has no underlying core. Or maybe it’s even like an onion, you peel away the layers, and you have nothing left. But back to the spiritual practice, can you speak more in detail about your beliefs?
I don’t have a name for it, but I guess I’ve been exposed to a lot of ideas around Buddhism. My mother was really involved with a few Buddhist teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron, and they’re both wonderful and interesting. I was exposed at a very young age to these ideas. I can’t really say I’m a practicing Buddhist, it’s just that I was exposed to those ideas, and read books by both of those people. I can’t really connect it directly to any one lineage or philosophy.
My mother was a Sephardic Jew from Morocco who grew up in a very oppressive place and time, and she met my father in New York soon after she and her family had emigrated to this country. After they married, my father was offered tenure at UC San Diego, so we moved to southern California where my father was from originally. He was from Los Angeles. So suddenly it was the 70s and my mother was in southern California, and she was exposed to all these new ideas, New Age stuff, consciousness raising for women, all kinds of healing, rebirthing, meditation, and yoga, health food. She really abandoned her Judaism and adopted this new spiritual path. So again from a very young age I was exposed to all of that. I guess I must have wanted to go, but she would bring me to very different meetings and gatherings. When I was a teenager I started to have my own interest in it. I started to do rebirthing, and at that time I had already started “acting out” and it wasn’t that I wanted to tag along because it was what my mother was doing. I felt that I needed it, some kind of healing or therapy. I already started to feel the pinch of growing up as a mixed race kid in very WASP-y La Jolla. I was always very body oriented. It showed up in my art very early. I was very curious about the body, very curious about sexuality. I had low self-esteem, but I always felt there was some kind of power in my body, and started acting out in ways that reflected all of that. I always had this creative impulse, I had this impulse around the body. Those things were real for me early on, and those things are in my work now.
There’s a large body of press on your previous work, so perhaps we should skip ahead. What are you working on now?
I just finished a couple of new performance works that I’m really excited about. I made this new piece called “Baby Lady” that I’m really enjoying performing. It’s the journey through a woman’s life starting with her birth through her death and sort of rebirth. It ended up being another of several Narcissister pieces where I process the death of my mother. In the piece, I am this newborn baby, then I’m a toddler, then I’m a young child, then I’m a pre-teen, teenager, then college graduate, then I’m a bride, then I’m a mother, then I start aging, and on stage my hair becomes gray. The process by which I age is very exciting for me. Whereas up until now this piece has been very sweet in some ways with petticoats and babies, the way in which I portray her aging is very body intensive. Early on in the piece she has these blonde braids, and in my body I have these gray braids that I take out and put on my head to replace them. Also, I have this older woman mask that I take out of my body and put on my face. So that piece is wonderful because I love showing a woman aging onstage. I love that in my own small way I am celebrating a woman aging and all the different points in her life and honoring all those different points. That piece has felt really righteous for me to perform.
Also, I’ve been thinking for a long time about how to make a subversive Marilyn Monroe piece…
Ooh, I love that…
I just finished it a couple weeks ago. There’s the iconic photograph of her on the red background that the Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura used for his work. So I used that pose as a jump off point, and I’m naked in that pose as she was. And then I get dressed as her in one of her most iconic looks. It’s another reverse striptease and I love that again it’s honoring her, and I also think that it’s also tearing the iconography down in some awesome and exciting and humorous ways.
And you’re also working on a film?
I am also making a feature film supported by the Creative Capital Grant that I got last year. It’s based on a performance that I did at Abrons Art Center in 2013, and it is a very stylized metaphorical attempt to deal with my mother’s illness and death. It’s almost completely shot, and I’m in the thick of editing right now.
Can we talk about the reverse striptease? It’s so fantastic how it turns the convention on its head. What do you think the power of it is, and how did you decide to first incorporate it into your work?
I started thinking about that kind of performance when I was going to a lot of burlesque shows. There were a lot of cool people like Julie Atlas Muz, Rose Wood, Dirty Martini, and they were doing very intense things with their bodies, and I understood what the potential was, or could be. But very quickly I wanted to depart from that kind of work and I knew when I started the project I wanted to cover my face. I didn’t know yet I’d be using my Narcissister mask, but I knew that I wanted to make very intense use of my body. So I started to think early on — and this is still really exciting to me — how can I use my body in an erotic way, and how can my body be used or experienced in a way other than what’s commonly offered. Without being able to fully articulate or conceptualize it, I felt like there could be something radical about using my body in this new way, totally on my own terms, and I started thinking, “what kinds of things can I fit inside of me, and how? And how can I do it safely?” My brand of performance art doesn’t sit in the brand of people who either court harming themselves or do harm themselves in their work, but I want to go as far as I can without it causing me harm or unnecessary stress.
So I started thinking really creatively, like what would be really fresh and new and shocking and righteous, but also totally safe. That was an exciting process. So one of the things I started thinking about accomplishing was how can I get fully dressed and accessorized on stage only with things I pull from my orifices. That was the premise. I had never seen anything like this. It’s such a wonderful and intense idea. That was the guiding principle. And for the first performance like that, “I’m Every Woman,” I wasn’t thinking in my mind, “Oh, I want to do it as a woman with an afro,” I just realized that I couldn’t fit everything in my body, and so I had to have some kind of big structure on my head where I can hide more items. Again, I had the goal in mind, and everything followed from there.
There was a lot of trial and error going to fabric stores to see like what fabrics — is it silk or is it mesh — that collapses down to the smallest sizes possible, for example. I just figured it out piece by piece. The “I’m Every Woman” piece has definitely been one of my most celebrated pieces and I think its because I’m accomplishing this amazing physical task. Ariel Osterweis who has written a lot about my work calls that piece very virtuosic, and I love that idea that it’s a transferring of virtuosity to that new form. The aesthetics ended up being really good with the afro and that song, subverting that song, “I’m every woman, it’s all in me.” I’ve done other pieces that have a similar premise, either I start fully costumed and everything goes back inside, or the opposite.
It seems to also connect with what you were saying about Narcissister and the other sisters. You’re all one, you’re no one. That song kind of encompasses your work as a whole. There’s so many meta-narratives going on in that piece alone.
That’s very true. There could be some Narcissister museum show in 30 years that’s all like, “Narcissister: I’m every woman, it’s all in me.” [Laughs] But it’s true, it’s true. I guess that piece is very popular because it encapsulates so many ideas around my project in general. The song and the actions in that piece, the racial issues, it’s very essential to what I’m after.
Images: still from “Mannequin”; still from “Baby Lady”; still from “Every Woman”; still from “Narcissister Is You”; 2 stills from “Baby Lady”; still from “Man/Woman”