Ambi: Intro music
Ah-Sue: This is Raw Material. An arts and culture podcast by SFMOMA. I’m your host, Geraldine Ah-Sue, for a season about art, community and social justice. Up next on Raw Material:
Antoni:We don’t usually lick sculptures [laughter], or take it in the tub.
Ibarra: When I abandoned La Chica Boom, in some ways I also felt like I was abandoning this idea, or this fiction, about Latinidad.
Cassils: How could I grow and manipulate the meat of my body to have a sort of expression of gender?
Ah-Sue: We’re talking about art, and the body.
Ambi: Cybal clash
Ambi: Intro music ends
Ah-Sue: Feel that. The beat of your heart, the knot in your chest, the tension in your muscles, the drop in your breath.
Ah-Sue: Art is a sensation. An experience, mediated by the body. Flesh and bone, our bodies carry us through this world. They’re what we’re made of. They are the conduits for our actions, how we feel, our relationships with each other. Bodies. We all have them. So why are they treated so differently from each other?
Ambi: Music ends
Ambi: Laughing from Ibarra's Nude Laughing
Ah-Sue: We’re listening to an outdoor performance of artist Xandra Ibarra’s piece, Nude Laughing.
Ibarra: The practice is to embody a certain type of “joie d’essense” of white femininity. What I think of as the pleasures of white femininity.
Ambi: High heels walking
Ah-Sue: Ibarra is an Oakland-based artist originally from the El Paso/Juarez border. In Nude Laughing, she walks around in high heels, completely nude, hair down, dragging a long beige nylon sack of what she calls her “white lady parts.”
Ibarra: [laughter] And so in there, there are pink ballet flats, blonde wigs, white pearls, some furs, other things I associate with white femininity that might be played out, or that are more camp.
Ah-Sue: But the laughter eventually becomes cackling, which then escalates in volume and vigor, and after 20 minutes, the pleasure begins to dissolve into downright discomfort.
Ambi: Laughing from a performance of Nude Laughing
Ah-Sue: That’s when she crouches down and envelopes herself into the nylon.
Ambi: Rummaging into a bag of stuff
Ibarra: At that point when I enter into the sack, I really am exploring the relationship between white womanhood and my own raciality at that moment. Those knots. And the complexity of those knots. And how white womanhood informs the way in which we see women of color.
Ambi: Music Ends
Ambi: Horse trotting, people talking outside
Ah-Sue: In 1903, Black intellectual and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, and in it he describes what he calls “double consciousness.” That is, the psychological struggle that African Americans, or perhaps people of color in general endure, having to hold both the identities of ourselves as we know ourselves, and the racist stereotypes that society places upon us. The dual work it takes to be and not be both of those identities, all of the time.
Ambi: Music end, horse trotting end
Ibarra: I do think that there is a natural inclination for me to think of my body as a medium because so much of my life, or at least I focus a lot of things in my life that have to do with the way in which I am perceived. As a human. As embodied Latina. Or embodied woman. Or both, Latina woman.
Ah-Sue: As Du Bois puts it "It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one-self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." This was more than a century ago. And today, while the struggle continues, the possibilities for power in these identities have expanded.
Ibarra: The series of works that I made with La Chica Boom. They all play with race, sex and humor, and make a spectacle of it. You know, what I call a “spictacle” idea [laughter].
Ah-Sue: La Chica Boom is a persona Ibarra took on in the early 2000’s. As a self described “humorous pervert,” much of Ibarra’s work as La Chica Boom explores the historic and cultural linkages between racialization and sexuality. You know. Like the subservient Asian who will love you long time. Or the hot Latina, sizzling and sultry, her body practically burning her clothes off for you! As La Chica Boom, Ibarra’s art explored these tropes, shall we say, ‘full throttle.’
Ambi: Whipping, sexy sounds
Ibarra: The Tapatio Cock came about because I was trying to think of ways in which I could perversely engage Mexicanidad and Mexican iconography. For many Mexicans, some of them will use the word chile in different ways. You can say someone’s ‘enchilada,’ that means someone might be angry. Or, you can also call a penis a chile. And so, it’s already there [laughter], so I just needed to figure out how do I make this visual. And so then I thought about a bottle of salsa.
Ah-Sue: At the time, Ibarra was actually making her own strap ons - which is a harness one wears to attach a dildo for sexy play times.
Ibarra: [laughter] So I decided to place the bottle in there, that I had at the house. And it happened to fit!
Ah-Sue: And that, as they say, was the money shot.
Ambi: Bell ringing
Ibarra: Then I was able to think more clearly about the object and thinking about it as sort of like, the idea of, bondage or racial bondage to salsa and to chile, and how Latinas are always tied to this idea of chiles and being hot headed and all that stuff.
Ambi: Music end
Ah-Sue: But race is a social construct. An enduring performance which can get tiresome, but which we can also never escape. Over the last few years, Ibarra, while still in her own skin, has also been morphing, moving away from her character of La Chica Boom in search for another truth.
Ibarra: When I abandoned La Chica Boom, in some ways I also felt like I was abandoning this idea, or this fiction, about Latinidad. And I think the reason it felt like a fiction is because I was playing with iconography. But also in some ways when we think about it, the U.S. is a fiction, but so is Mexico. And so is race. And that doesn’t mean we don’t feel the detrimental effects of race or racism. But in some ways I felt like, I don’t need to perform the raciality anymore.
Ah-Sue: The new figure she’s been playing with: cockroaches. Biologically, the cockroach will actually go through a process called ecdysis: a process of shedding its skin, not to transform into a butterfly or something like that, but simply to grow new skin. For a few hours, it’s raw, exposed, vulnerable. It takes some time for the new cuticle to harden. But eventually, it becomes new... in a way.
Ibarra: And a lot of times people from Latin America are called vermin or cockroaches. A lot of immigrants are actually, around the world. And so I started to feel that I could identify with the cockroach. I also identified with it too because of its ability to survive a bunch of stuff and live between the cracks. And be an abject figure.
Ah-Sue: The abject figure. A low existence that we take for granted. Pay no attention to them. Never mind their presence. But the abject figure survives. It finds a way to not just exist, but to thrive. And it sees it all.
Ambi: Cassils stricking clay
Cassils: To beat 2,000 pounds of clay requires a cardiovascular capacity of keeping your heart rate at 170 beats per minute. I have to be able to strike repetitively. My tendons and bones have to be strong.
Ah-Sue: We’re listening to Cassils, a gender non-conforming trans masculine visual artist. Reflecting the plurality they occupy as an artist, Cassils also uses gender-neutral pronouns such as ‘they’ and ‘them.’
Cassils: I think a lot of my early experiences were informed by being pretty ill as a child. I had undiagnosed gallbladder disease, which really sounds like not that big of a deal. But it’s an unusual thing for a young person to have. And so, the doctors were unable to treat it or recognize it. And so, for many years of my life, I guess from ages 9-14, I was really ill and would be profusely vomiting bile on hours on end and would end up in the emergency room. And doctors would say that it’s psychosomatic. It was all in my head. And send me home from the emergency room. So, I had this early experience of being told that what I was feeling in my body was in my head in fact. This sort of sexism around the medical industrial complex.
Ambi: Hospital ends
Ambi: Heart monitor
Cassils: And so, I wanted to learn and master my body and understand, and have enough understanding of the physiology of my body to be able to explicitly speak to somebody else as to when it wasn’t right.
Ambi: Heart monitor ends
Cassils: Most people don’t feel their body unless they’re having sex, or they’re in tremendous pain. And other than that, they don’t think about their bodies. And so, I became interested in having a much more nuanced relationship to that. So, what it looked like back in the day, I don’t think I would have articulated it like that, it was more just like, “screw you, I’m gonna be strong!” Was probably more…[laughter]. And then the underlying more subconscious of that was, “I don’t wanna go through puberty and be a girl.”
Ah-Sue: Cassils puts their body through rigorous transformations as a kind of examination of history, violence and representation. They’ve been training their body ever since they got out of the hospital, decades ago. Staying in shape, gaining muscle, eating well. It hasn’t been an easy road.
Cassils: So it looked like me at the YMCA at 16, you know, hanging out with some french canadian meatheads, and trying to figure it out.
Ambi: Water dripping
Ah-Sue: For Cassils, the body is a kind of social sculpture. This is apparent throughout much of their work. For example, in Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture, they explore societal norms of physical gender expression by undergoing extreme muscle development. This was inspired by Eleanor Antin’s 1972 performance “Carving: A Traditional Sculpture” in which Antin crash dieted for 45 days, documenting her body’s emaciation and decay through daily photographs. In Cuts, Cassils flips the script, and instead of decaying their body, they grow their body.
Cassils: For 160 days, which is a 6-month project, I underwent a very grueling body building practice. I intook the caloric intake of a 180 pound athlete, force feeding myself 6-7 meals a day. And for 6 weeks of those 6 months, I underwent a realm of steroids. As a way of really trying to think of the materials of flesh and blood and bone and sinew, just as you would think of materials of clay or bronze. You know? And, how could I grow and manipulate the meat of my body to have a sort of expression of gender?
Ah-Sue: In another piece, “Becoming an Image,” Cassils explores the violence of historical documentation. What gets created through the act of representation? What do we include, and what do we leave out?
Ambi: Moving furniture, closing doors and windows, masking tape
Cassils: And so what I did is I gutted one of the rooms of the archive. We took out all of the filing cabinets, and we made a light locked space.
Ah-Sue: The archive Cassils is referring to is the ONE Archives in Los Angeles, California. It’s the oldest LGBTQ archive in the world. Cassils was invited to create a piece that examined the missing q’s and t’s of the archive - q and t being queer and trans.
Ambi: Heart beat, heavy breathing
Cassils: And I built a 2,000 pound monolith of modeling clay in the center of the room. The audience is loaded in in the dark. And there’s sort of a dark room chamber at the entrance. So, as you move through the chamber into the actual performance space, it’s so dark you really can’t see your hand in front of your face. And so you don’t know what’s in there. You don’t know there’s a monolith of clay. You can maybe smell the clay, but that’s about it.
Ambi: Cassils striking clay, flash photography
Ah-Sue: In total darkness, Cassils then proceeds to beat the clay, over and over again, repetitively, unrelentingly, brutally. Throughout the course of the performance, a photographer snaps a shot, emitting a bright flash. The light from the flash is essentially the only chance the audience has to see the performance, but the contrast creates what’s called a “retinal burn”-- a prolonged afterimage of that single illuminated moment.
Ambi: Cassils striking clay ends
Cassils: And so what I was hoping to do was to make people, number one aware of the camera as being the thing that is instigating that moment of truth. But moreover, all of the darkness where there is no light, all of the histories, all of the moments in time that are never recorded and that exist outside of the realm of representation. And so it was about putting those two experiences side by side.
Ah-Sue: When we look at each other, for each other. When we are asked to see. What is it in fact, that we are seeing? What does power hide? And how can we reveal what’s hidden?
Ambi: Rearranging the room, phone ringing
Ah-Sue: We’re speaking with contemporary artist Janine Antoni. She lives and works on the east coast, so, we had to call in for this interview.
Stringer: It’s much better.
Antoni: It’s much better!
Ah-Sue: In 1993, Antoni made two sculptures titled Lick and Lather.
Antoni: Well, I guess I should start by saying that I was interested in beginning with an exact replica of myself.
Ah-Sue: They’re both molds of her own head, with a below the shoulder base. Oh, and they’re also made of chocolate and soap.
Antoni: The piece was originally made to show in Venice. And I knew there would be lots of classical sculpture everywhere. And so, I wanted to make a piece that would somehow relate to the place where it was originally going to be shown. And so that brought me to the notion of the classical bust.
Ah-Sue: We’ve seen these before. Smooth marble sculptures of Caesar Augustus, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo’s David. Usually resting on a tall, elegant pillar, these busts carved in stone conjure images of greatness and immortality, as they look beyond the viewer, towards the horizon.
Antoni: And, I thought, well, I’m going to work against the grain of that by working with these ephemeral materials.
Ah-Sue: Antoni started off by using a product called Alginade - you’ve probably come across it before. They use it at the dentist and it usually tastes like mint. But it’s also known as a substance that can create almost exact replicas, down to your skin pores! So, Antoni used it to get a mold of her head.
Antoni: So, I started with, really, my likeness, except of course imitating the classical stant. And then I reshaped my image by licking the chocolate and washing the soap.
Ambi: Piano ends
Ambi: Drawing a bath
Ah-Sue: After she made the original castings for Lick and Lather, Antoni took her soap bust into the bath with her, and gently lathered it, softening the features of her face. Similarly, she blurred the face of the chocolate bust by licking it. Yum.
Antoni: My work deals with identity, and I sort of naturally came to self portraiture as a way of trying to discuss notions of identity. And oftentimes I like to work within a tradition. So, I started just thinking about what it would mean in this day in time to try to make a self portrait, and how would that look different from a portrait that was made a long time ago?
Ambi: Humming in bathtub
Antoni: So I thought to myself, is it more interesting to describe myself through these everyday activities, like eating or bathing, and are we more ourselves at home taking a bath or having a meal at night? And, so I tried to use these everyday activities and these materials associated with them as a way of describing myself.
Ah-Sue: This is a stark contrast to the traditional busts we are used to seeing. With Antoni’s work, it’s like the illusion of everlasting significance and power are being discarded, and instead, the inner workings, those private moments we keep to ourselves, are now on display. The inside is now on the outside, and the work we hide to appear invincible ultimately becomes the object itself.
Antoni: If you look at my body of work from the beginning of my career, I kind of walk that line between object, performance, relic. And what I try to do, in most cases, I try to put the history of the making on the surface of the object.
Ah-Sue: But in this reversal of the relationship between inside and outside, Antoni also switches the roles that permanence and impermanence have in the ways we view ourselves. Typically, a sculptural portrait is about legacy, the things that will carry on. But rarely do we think of this embodied legacy as fragile, perishable, as inextricably tied to the mortality of our own bodies.
Antoni: I was struck by the licking and washing as these kind of loving acts. But, of course, I realized that in the process of these loving acts, I’m slowly erasing myself.
Ambi: Whispering, heavy footsteps, sniffing
Ah-Sue: When viewers approached Lick and Lather, there was an intimacy that often occurred. They would approach the replicas of Antoni, which were made of chocolate and soap, and they would look. Close. Very close. And then they’d smell. And wonder. And the more they engaged, the more they learned about the process and materials of the pieces, which in some ways, were surrogates for Antoni herself. A relationship was formed.
Antoni: Well, the thing I always say about how I would like, the kind of experience for my viewer, when they experience the work, I don’t know if you can recall this experience. But when you get on the subway. And you sit down on a seat. And you feel the warmth of the person who sat there before you. There’s something very uncanny about that experience, but to me it sort of comes down to the root of the human condition. You know, you recognize this body that you don’t know. But you feel intimate with it because it has the same experiences as you do.
Ah-Sue: [Breathe in, breathe out] Through our bodies, we take art in, we incorporate it into the making of our being, and allow it to transform us. It excites us. It moves us. And we gather for it. It breaks us from the isolated shells of our individual lives and it offers us a shared moment. Art is an experience that brings us together.
Ambi: Outro Music
Ah-Sue: Next time, on Raw Material:
Fernández: What if this place didn’t have a wall? What would it look like? What would it feel like?
Howard: Home is not always safe. Some of the most tragic things happen in the home.
Gameros: I was living in the shadows, completely.
Ah-Sue: We’re talking about art, and the ‘home.’ Join us.
Ah-Sue: Season 2 of Raw Material is produced by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and me, Geraldine Ah-Sue. The music you heard in this episode was from Revolution Void, Remus, Seymour Lipkin, Marceau, and Terratombats. The sound you heard from the performance, “Becoming an Image” is entitled Ghost, a four channel surround sound installation by the artist with sound design by Kadet Kunne and Richard Barley, and comes courtesy of the Artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Art, New York. Our special thanks to the Pal Boxing Club in Vallejo, CA, and Erika Aguilar. To learn more about what you just heard today, visit sfmoma.org/raw-material. We’ll see you next time.