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Women artists in conversation: Narcissister

Narcissister is a Brooklyn based artist whose work includes performance, dance and activism as essential elements. She continues the tradition of second wave feminist artists, such as Adrian Piper, Lorraine O’Grady, Carolee Schneemann,  etc., who challenged the status quo in their examination of gender roles, sexuality and equal rights. Narcissister wears a trademark vintage mask in most works, obscuring her identity and provoking the viewer to think of the artist as an “everywoman” rather than about an individual experience.

In 2011, she appeared on America’s Got Talent and was boosted to public attention on the national stage. Narcissister’s live works often incorporate elements of burlesque, strip tease, and vaudeville. She is known for performances like Hot Dog and Every Woman, in which she performs a self-described “reverse strip tease,” removing items of clothing from her bodily orifices and using them to dress. In 2014, she launched Untitled (Bare Breasted), in which she and other women walked the streets of New York City topless, highlighting the taboo against women being shirtless in public although it is acceptable for men. Her work questions society’s definitions of femininity and opens venues for political discussion, particularly regarding women’s rights.

In a conversation with Kathy Battista, Editor in Chief of the Benezit Dictionary of Art, she talks about her work, its relationship to earlier feminist practice, and her recent foray into the feature film world.

Still from Forever Young (2017). The performance artist wears one of her trademark vintage masks. Image courtesy of the artist.

Kathy: Your work often includes and uses your own body as performance object and prop. Does this relate back to early feminist works where the artists—Carolee Schneemann, Adrian Piper, etc—were very much present in the performance?

Narcissister: Who and what I am–my ethnic background, my upbringing, my education, my sensitivities–has informed the work I have made as Narcissister, and my sensibility of course is so central in the work, so in this way my presence has been essential, at least for the project’s inception. I do take myself out of the work to a great extent with the Narcissister is You project, a photo series and video installations of other women and some men embodying the Narcissister character. Extending the project and the character beyond me is central to my vision for the project, and makes sense as I already portray different women (and men) as Narcissister. And because of the mask, this kind of extension is built-in– it’s easy and inevitable. It informs the work that other people are involved, it adds interesting complexity and meaning. I don’t know how important it will be over time for me to be part of the work. Perhaps it won’t be essential for the project’s continued success. What I do know is that performing as Narcissister brings me so much joy and satisfaction! I don’t plan to stop performing at any point. I would love to perform as Narcissister throughout my life. I hope to have the opportunity to perform as Narcissister as a very old woman.

Still from Hot Dog (2014). Image courtesy of the artist.

K: Is it important that work addresses issues of race as well as gender? 

N: Yes, issues of both race and gender are important to me. I am drawn to explorations of these issues from many different angles, through many different lenses. I have realized, because of the sheer reality of my identity, that it is impossible for me to not address these issues on some level. These issues come into play in the work whether I directly intend it or not. I have become more interested in these subtleties recently.

Still from The Basket (2009). In this short film, Narcissister’s play on the tropes of “racial kitsch” from Eastern European folk figures to the African American “mammy” challenges female racial stereotypes. Image courtesy of the artist.

K: Your new film, Organ Player, which premiered at Sundance in January, is based on your personal experience, which in itself is a feminist topic. Can you say something about the experience of making a feature film, which is a new departure for you?

N: Yes, making a film was a new departure for me and my work as Narcissister as it’s autobiographical- there are pictures and videos from my family life, and I am the narrator. I speak directly about how my family and my upbringing in Southern California impacted me. My work as Narcissister has always referred to my personal history but in an enigmatic and oblique way. It was a huge leap to take and I felt uncomfortable levels of vulnerability at first. Ultimately I am grateful I had the inspiration to tell this very personal story and that I was able to finish a film that is deeply meaningful to me and which also resonates with other people.

K: Were there other artworks of films about the mother/daughter relationship that inspired your work on Organ Player?

N: There are many works that inspired me, not necessarily ones about mothers and daughters- The Beaches of Agnes, Vessel (about Women on Waves), Tarnation, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Maggie Nelson’s candid writing about her personal experience, Frida Kahlo’s imagery. These are a few works that come to mind today!

Still from Marilyn (2017). In Marilyn, Narcissister subverted the iconography of film star Marilyn Monroe, an American symbol of femininity and sexuality. Image courtesy of the artist.

K: How do you feel that your work departs from or furthers earliest feminist performance? What is different about it?

N: I think the main element that separates my work from much of this work is my embrace of humor, and the deeply subversive potential it carries. Also, perhaps my unabashed embrace of pop forms, my commitment to the mask, and my brash aesthetic separates my work from this early feminist work. Worth considering also is my/our distance from pivotal movements–the women’s liberation movement and civil rights movement. Perhaps this distance affords me more space to be more playful, less overtly serious? I am not sure I am furthering early feminist performance work. I still look to early feminist performance work for inspiration. I certainly aspire to be just as powerful as the best of it.

In 2018 the Benezit Dictionary of Artists has devoted a year to commissioning new biographies to revising and expanding current entries on women artists.

Featured image credit: Still from The Basket (2009). Image courtesy of the artist.

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