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Women artists in conversation: Zoe Buckman [Q&A]

Zoe Buckman is a young artist and activist whose work in sculpture, photography, embroidery, and installation explores issues of feminism, mortality, and equality. She was born in London in 1985 and lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Buckman was a featured artist at Pulse Projects New York 2014 and Miami 2016, and was included in the curated Soundscape Park at Art Basel Miami Beach 2016. Her new public work, Champ, produced in collaboration with the Art Production Fund, is located on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Sweetzer Avenue in front of The Standard in West Hollywood. Standing 43’ tall and 9’ in diameter, the installation features a glowing white neon outline of an abstracted uterus with fiberglass boxing gloves in place of ovaries. The kinetic sculpture slowly rotates, serving as a symbol of female empowerment, and will be on view until February 2019. Buckman also recently opened “Let Her Rave,” a solo show of her work at Gavlak Gallery in LA.

In an interview with Kathy Battista, Editor in Chief of the Benezit Dictionary of Art, Buckman discusses her work, her passion for health care rights for all women, and her new public art project.

Kathy: Feminism has recently become fashionable again after a few decades where it had a bad reputation. In the past decade we’ve seen feminist art take central stage in exhibitions such as WACK!, Global Feminisms and Radical Women. We also see feminist iconography and messaging in popular culture and fast fashion slogan t-shirts. Can you comment on the recent pervasiveness of feminism? Does this intersect with your work? 

Zoe: Because both of my parents are feminists, and because my mum, in particular, is an activist—I feel gender inequality has always been a part of my dialogue. It has been really amazing to witness how feminism has become part of our social landscape, and like many of us, I just hope we’re not in the midst of fad.

“Champion from the exhibition Mostly It’s Just Uncomfortable, neon light and boxing gloves, 2015 by Zoe Buckman. Image courtesy of the artist.

K: You are about to launch a new public installation at The Standard in Los Angeles. Tell us about Champ: how does it relate to its site at a hotel and in such a prominent location? 

Z: This will be my first large-scale public sculpture! One of the most exciting things about this project is the visibility. The piece will be up for a year on one of the city’s most heavily trafficked Boulevards. What I find most moving about this opportunity is when I think about how it will have the chance to transcend the exclusivity of the art world and will be seen by many: from children to bus drivers, Hollywood execs, to the hotel staff.

K: You made Mostly It’s Just Uncomfortable (2015) in response to the US government’s current agenda to curb funding for Planned Parenthood. You come from a country that offers health care to all its citizens and residents. Can you say something about your interest in health care for all and how this is of particular importance to women?

Z: I was raised to believe that access to health care is a basic human right and that the country one lives in should provide this service for free. It’s been really difficult for me as a Londoner to adjust to the systems in place in the US. I’ve lived in New York for over a decade. In the run-up to all three elections I’ve witnessed, male politicians start making statements about abortion and choice, which almost always leads to a discussion about rape. The UK has its problems, but no one discusses abortion there anymore. It’s legal and free and women are offered free counselling on the NHS should they opt to terminate a pregnancy… because the country recognizes that that decision is always a difficult one to arrive at for any woman, and that women deserve support through that process. Not only does the perpetuation of these judgmental and backwards statements bother me, but women’s rights are constantly in flux here. The laws concerning women’s sexual health seem to be ever-changing state-by-state and constantly threatened.

“Head Gear” from the exhibition Mostly It’s Just Uncomfortable, speculums and powder coated metal, 2017 by Zoe Buckman. Image courtesy of the artist.

K: I’m interested in Every Curve, where vintage garments typically associated with the feminine—bras, stockings, knickers—are hand embroidered with hip-hop lyrics. As a feminist and a lover of hip hop, I’m often asked about the treatment of women in certain artists’ lyrics, so this work speaks volumes to me. Can you talk about how you selected the lyrics by Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. and the garments, and why you were drawn to antique pieces in particular? 

Z: I wanted to put the lyrics of these two murdered rappers and their statements about women (both the empowering and degrading) into the context of the history of objectification and sex. In order to really look at the how ideas about the female form have developed throughout history, I decided to look at lingerie because it is intimate and personal by nature, but also speaks to the male gaze. I wanted to invoke the female form without explicitly using it (because it’s over-used in art!) so embroidery on under garments felt right for this series.

K: Your use of wedding dresses as artistic material, combined with boxing gloves, calls to mind the strategies and themes of second wave feminist artists including Judy Chicago and Kate Walker, as well as earlier artists such as Frida Kahlo. Can you tell us why you chose to use wedding dresses? 

Z: The series Let Her Rave is a response to a line in a Keats poem, but is also a comment on marriage as a social construct that keeps women hemmed in… even if we are complicit in this. I wanted to look at ideas of chastity, purity, and perfection, and how these are shackling concepts. Nothing says “perfection” with more weight than a wedding dress, so acquiring used wedding dresses and cloyingly imprisoning boxing gloves with them was the way I wanted to speak to these issues.

“10 Months in this Gut” from the exhibition Every Curve, embroidery on vintage lingerie, 2015 by Zoe Buckman. Image courtesy of the artist.

K: Do you see fashion as a feminist statement? 

Z: For me, Feminism is all about choice. Can I choose who I love? If I want to have children? If I want to work? How I want to dress? If women want to embrace fashion then, yes: their clothing choices are part of their feminist statement. If dressing is merely a means to an end for a woman and she cares little about “fashion,” then that is wonderful too. I personally really enjoy the aesthetic quality to clothing and so fashion is one of the ways I choose to express myself.

K: Do you have plans to continue to work as both a feminist artist and activist? Are there any projects on the horizon?

Z: Yes to all! My next project will be to spend more time in London with my Mum, because I am being made to realize how precious my time is. Activism and service will come into everything I do, and on the work front I’m excited to develop my first museum installation with ICP Museum. That will hopefully be shared in the fall or next year.

Featured image credit: “Champ” by Zoe Buckman (2018). Photo by Veli-Matti Hoikka, courtesy of Art Production Fund. Used with permission.

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