REPRINT: TWO FACES ARE BETTER THAN ONE

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An interview with NARCISSISTER!

In discussions about the self and identity, the focus tends to lie on what’s on “the inside.” The outwards persona, constructed by superficial symbols and signifiers, is often passed over as something frivolous and immaterial. However, such disregard fails to recognize the powerful visual language of these images and the history behind them.

This interview was first published in the current print issue exploring the discourse around  ‚I,‘ which can be found in stores and ONLINE 

An artist who has recognized the inseparable interconnection between the construction of our inner and outer self is American artist NARCISSISTER. Recognizable by her distinctive mask, which simultaneously offers her the guise of anonymity, she deconstructs our modes of self-representation and explores the semiotic systems through which we communicate. We spoke to her about the construction of identity, visual expression of social media and the power of anatomy.

JOHANNE BJÖRKLUND LARSEN: Who is Narcissister?
NS: The really nice thing for me is that Narcissister doesn’t really exist, there’s not a lot of density to her. So I love to say that she’s a plastic mask laying on the floor of my studio and that anybody can animate her. I am presently the primary embodiment of that character, but anyone can be her; anyone who decides to pick up the mask, put it on and embody her with whatever energy they feel inspired to do it with.

What would you say to our „selves“ and „identities“ consist of, and how do we construct them?
NS: Narcissister has been a really interesting exercise for me in pondering these questions of identity because, as I said, Narcissister doesn’t fully exist – she’s a costume that somebody puts on. Being Narcissister says so much about this malleability of identity and how it is constructed. My own identity is multifaceted: My mother was a Sephardic Jewish woman from Morocco and my father was African-American from Watts, in Los Angeles. So I’m a hybrid myself. My parents were also, in their own way, very complex in their expressions of their identities and didn’t fit into any tidy explanations of who they were or who they wanted people to perceive them as being. With Narcissister, I practice putting her on and then gracefully taking her off, or even aggressively tearing her away. I understand that identity is something that we can put on and that in some ways, not always, identity can be a choice. I guess that when we’re lucky, we can see identity as a choice. But that’s a bigger topic which we could spend the whole time talking about, like who has the choice to define themselves and what does that mean? And is it true that it’s a privileged position or not, et cetera.

“I think NARCISSISTER practices a radical form of self love which is healing and righteous.” 

We often resort to superficial signifiers in order to visually express ourselves. What strengths and weaknesses do you think comes with this?
I think that’s really related to what I was saying about how we choose to represent ourselves. There’s a choice in that, which is almost like costuming and that is similar to what I do with Narcissister. And under that costume, there is some kind of real essential self, which can be very different from the signifying representations on the surface. we all do, whether it’s a businessman wearing a suit or an artist wearing paint-splattered pants. The strength is that we can choose how we want to present ourselves with our “costuming.” The weakness is that we can be manipulative or deceitful or insincere with the signifiers we choose to represent ourselves with. With Narcissister, I’m very interested in animating that reality of everyday life and this idea that identity is something that we put on and that it’s a part that we play. Because it’s a choice, whether we’re conscious of it or not. It’s something we have learned and which has been given to us. And then, if we’re lucky, we will at some point have a chance to decide whether we’re in agreement with that given identity. 

In your practice, you use masks, wigs, merkins, breast plates and other fake and prosthetic body parts. What are your thoughts behind choosing to wear these?
In my solo performance work as Narcissister, part of the concept and the challenge is that I play all the roles. And I have intricate performance pieces – one, for example, where I portray the life of a woman, from birth to death to rebirth in less than five minutes. So, in order for me to play all the roles, I often need to design costumes that make it seem like there’s more than one person on stage. I do that with fake body parts, with dolls, with additional heads and additional hands. In using these prosthetics, I am able to give the illusion of doing many things at once or being many different people at the same time, when in reality, it’s just me on stage.

Your mask is a distinctive signifier, yet it also gives you anonymity. What power do you think anonymity brings?
For me, that is the greatest power of the character. It gives me a lot of comfort because I have no interest in making art that’s 65 uniquely about myself. I draw a lot from my own experience in my work and I know that I want to be the primary embodiment of this character. I love to perform as Narcissister and use my background as a professional dancer. But the idea of making work that shows my face and my eyes, and therefore seems to be exclusively about me, is not interesting to me at all. So the mask protects my privacy and I find it very inspiring to put the mask on and to become this other character. I find that it makes the project strange and singular. Again, I’m very satisfied with this idea that there is no density to her, but that the mask is just an object, a signifier, that is laying on the floor of my studio when it’s not animated. Additionally, I think the mask enables me to make comments about race because the mask comes in multiple skin tones. I can also add facial hair and, that way, easily become a man. The message of the project becomes so much broader with the mask than it could ever have been if I were doing this work as myself. I am committed to portraying this character until I die and I really look forward to perform as Narcissister when I am an old woman. I’m excited to imagine what it will look like to pair my old wrinkly body with this mask, this smooth, plastic mask that doesn’t age and doesn’t change expression. I think the messages in the work will only become more powerful as I get older.

“What’s been very exciting and liberating for me is to, through this character, be able to reclaim my sexuality and my erotic expression as my own and to queer it and to revel in it as my own creation.”

Narcissister’s appearance evokes connections to what is usually associated with a very sexual view of the female body. Why do you think female eroticism is such an effective tool for discussing identity?
I don’t know if the erotics in my work go very far in furthering discussions of identity as some other aspects of my work do. I feel that exploring eroticism in  this project is very meaningful and freeing for me, and I think that it’s more about reclaiming sexuality or eroticism on my own terms. Because, perhaps, as a woman of color – and maybe as an American woman  of color – I felt that I was assigned a certain eroticism and that there is a certain fetish associated with my identity. Maybe this is the way that it says something about identity. What’s been very exciting and liberating for me is to, through this character, be able to reclaim my sexuality and my erotic expression as my own and to queer it and to revel in it as my own creation. For example, in choosing to use my orifices in unpredictable ways – it’s not about accessibility for a lover or for a gynecologist’s hands or to produce a baby through. Instead, I have reclaimed my genitals and use them to my own delightful ends through this character. I think that there’s always something complicated in the fine line that I know that I walk, because I am using many of these well-worn images of the erotic or sexualized woman or the sexualized woman of color. I know that there’s not necessarily something fresh in that itself; however, I feel that in queering eroticism in the way that I do as Narcissister, it dislodges some of these cliched representations of female sexuality that are so painful for many of us women. 

Your work has often made me think about the difference between male body expression versus female and how we move in society. How do you think body language determines our experience of ourselves and the world around us?
I think about this a lot during the process of choreographing my Narcissister works because, as I said, I used to be a professional dancer and I do draw on my dance training and the different techniques that I learned.
But I’m also really interested in pedestrian movements and incorporating them into the work. As I don’t have a facial expression to offer since the mask is never changing, my body language does all of the communication. So it’s not just the dance moves that I might do, but also about what I can communicate with my body language. If I’m portraying a baby as Narcissister, I have to think of what the body language is of a baby, how does a baby move? If I’m portraying a man, what’s the typical male body language? What’s the stance like? What’s the position of the hips? How do the arms move? If I’m portraying a stripper, what’s the body language of a stripper? In this particular instance, the body language is also choreography. And all of it goes back to this idea of identity. Our body language is something that, whether we’re aware of it or not, we put on and it’s a form of dance that we do to further whatever representation we’re invested in putting out in the world.

The name Narcissister evokes the word narcissism, referencing vanity, self-absorption and egoism. These are traits I think are often seen as more ok when displayed by men, but is almost always something inherently negative when mentioned in reference to women. What do you think Narcissister enables you to explore which you wouldn’t be able to do without this character?
There is a certain forthrightness to her, and she’s very bold, she’s very unapologetic. She’s very explicit with her body and with her eroticism. And she loves being solo, she likes to play all the roles. I don’t know if those things are necessarily narcissistic in the traditional sense, but it is an embodiment that I find exciting as a woman. And it’s something I love seeing in other women in real life. This character is not about the negative ideas that are related to narcissism, where self love is unhealthy and extreme. I think Narcissister practices a radical form of self love which is healing and righteous.

 

Interview by JOHANNE BJÖRKLUND LARSEN
All Images courtesy by the artist 

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