When we think of sexually provocative art, the mind runs wild—for instance, paintings or photography bordering on pornography. Well, Brooklyn-based artist Narcissister takes our preconceived ideas, manifests them in her art, then both figuratively and literally pulls them out of her vagina in her new film Narcissister Organ Player.
An at-times provocative and other-times heartwarming documentary, the film takes us along an emotional trip into her family history. Dedicated to her family, and particularly her mother, the film tells a story through video clips and photos; Narcissister narrates and occasionally reveals herself through performance art pieces. Speaking about her Sephardic Jewish mother and African-American father’s lives, the story of a biracial child of immigrants is presented to us in full transparency.
Oftentimes we've become so accustomed to reading about people's experiences that we take their struggles for granted. We forget that marginalized people aren't just headlines on Facebook news; they're real communities who have stories, pasts, and futures. Narcissister's film brings all these ideas to the surface.
Using transgressive art practices, she uses her body and mind to throw away all polite dialogue and bring out actual conversations about sex, race, class, and religion.
While I won’t spoil the film for you all, I have one piece of advice: Bring tissues to the theater—and continue reading for an interview with the arist herself.
Fei: For people who aren’t familiar with your work, your film might be their first exposure to you. Can you give me a few short sentences on what you want them to get out of it?
Narcissister: Well, it was not my intention of making a documentary. I was very adamant about that. I really wanted to make a film that was in honor of my parents, and, in particular, in honor of my mother. The close relationship I had with her. In order to tell that story, and the story of how my family history, and how that relationship with my mother impacts my work, I had to give some information of course about Narcissister. But what I would like people to take from the film is some knowledge of my parents who both passed away. I’d love for people to meet my parents who I thought were such interesting people, and maybe reflect on their own family stories, and how they’re impacted not only by their immediate family but our ancestral stories as well.
Fei: I read on your website that in one of your previous museum shows, you had viewers put on the Narcissister mask, to experience being “anonymous.” The webpage also mentioned Freud, and considering both of your work deals with parental relationships and parental influences, would you consider your work “neo-Freudian?” Or were you influenced by his ideas?
Narcissister: I think the person who mentioned Freud was a theorist writing about that exhibition. I’m not ready to contextualize my work in any Freudian lines of thinking. Of course, I would be interested and amused to hear and consider Freudian consideration of my practice, but I'm not the person to offer that.
Fei: You bring up your mother a lot. Can you tell me in detail about the specific ways that she influenced you, or are there particular acts that are done for your mother's private eye in a way?
Narcissister: A lot of that is in the film. I excerpt the words that are more directly about her or in honor of her, or in reaction to her. So [without the film] it might be a little bit tricky for me to describe those, but there are many examples in the film. Her aesthetics influenced me. She was a very wonderful artistic cook and I was her assistant. And I love that miracle of us creating elaborate things from scratch in the kitchen, and touching things with my hands, and seeing all the colors and the textures.
And that’s a huge influence not only in the visual aesthetics but also in the fact that you know I have a very low-high aesthetic of Narcissister. I make my own costumes, and I make my own set pieces for the most part. I think she had a wonderful sensuality that impacted me and on my work. She was very intellectual, and in the film, I talk about how she taught me how to think about my work both theoretically and intellectually. That has also informed my practice very much. It’s hard to say without the film, but the fact that she was an immigrant, the fact that she had a health condition, and all these things impacted and have impacted and informed the work that I do as Narcissister.
Fei: After the film you did a Q&A at film forum, answering many questions similar to these. However I’m curious, being an ardent feminist in 2018, have you ever felt personally attacked by the alt-right, sexists, or people who weren't ready both emotionally and consciously to witness an unapologetic woman of color who embraces her sexuality?
Narcissister: Thankfully I have not experienced any of that. I don't spend a lot of time online. I have a very simple Facebook presence that I don’t even go to myself, I have an intern who does it for me. I don’t spend time online reading people’s reaction to my work, or the press that comes out about my work. The only time I was aware of anything hateful things said about me and my work was when I did the outing with Marilyn Manson. I remember reading some trolls wrote “oh what’s he doing hanging out with an N-word,” and I thought that was just shocking. I get the feeling that most people really understand the politics and criticality of my work.
It seems clear to people that I'm not just presenting fluff. Or eroticism, fluff, fluff sexuality, or fluff ideas around race or sexuality. At least I hope that's the case. I barely even read the reviews I get even if they’re positive. I prefer to not spend a lot of time thinking about what people think about me or my work.
Fei: Throughout your career, you’ve worn a mask the entire time as Narcissister. Do you only have one mask that you poured yourself into? Or is it just another prop?
Narcissister: I used to be a window display designer support myself as an artist, and I discovered what became that mask in this display room. It’s actually a mannequin display form I repurposed as a mask. I cut the eyes, nose and the mouth holes for breathing. I knew that from the beginning of this practice of being Narcissister, that I wanted to be anonymous and wear a mask.
At first, I was wearing different masks , but then I settled on that one mask. But when I settled on it, I realized I didn't know anything about the objects. I started doing research and found the wig form was designed by a company that was based in Los Angeles called Plastic Personalities. The wig form was the invention of the woman in the company, it was a husband and wife run company and that was her invention to make these wig forms that were lightweight that come in different skin tones to reflect the different races of the women in the wig market. That was her business— I found her patent online.
I actually wanted to meet her, and so I made a phone call, realizing that she must be in her early 90s. I thought maybe she’s still alive, and Narcissister can meet her maker. I did reach her daughter, and she told me her mother had died a month before, so I missed meeting her by a month. Her daughter showed me pictures of the factory, and the metal forms they used to create the plastic faces. The faces were designed in the 60s, and reflected very much the standards of beauty from that time; the wide-set eyes, the pointy nose, and the little prim mouth.
Fei: You mentioned that Narcissister is anonymous. Are there people in your private life who are unaware of who Narcissister is?
Narcissister: Yeah, most people who get to really know me all know. I tell them I’m a performance artist, and they can see my work on my website. We get to it pretty quickly, but I don’t advertise being Narcissister. I bring it up when it’s appropriate. Part of my interest in wearing a mask is that it’s never been my interest to play myself. Wearing my mask allows me to be this other person, Narcissiter.
When I’m not performing as her I’m happy to take the mask off and be Isabelle and relate to people as Isabelle.
Fei: Are you working on anything new?
Narcissister: The film is touring in different places, there’s an updated list of upcoming screenings on my website. My next big project is an evening-length at the Soho Rep here in New York City, it’s a commission in collaboration with the Playwright Brandon Jacob Jenkins. I do have an idea for another film, but it’s in very early stages, so I don’t feel ready to talk about what it is.
Many people have asked me are you ready to make another film. And at first, I would say I just wanted to tell the story of my family before I forgot the details. But then I realized that I like film as a medium, given its potential to reach a wider audience. So I am working on another film.