Jessica Mitrani

Jessica Mitrani’s work - video, theater, objects, installation - pushes clichés until they fry like bugs under a magnifying glass. Take, for example, the Single Shoes I went to borrow from her one day to shoot for the DERZEIT Prognosis Issue. Two feet, one shoe; maryjanes and Vivienne Westwood clompers; porno and staid at once. Mitrani, who’s originally from Colombia, has lived in New York since 1999. She collaborates with the collective Threeasfour; her videos have been exhibited at the Pompidou; she’s made theater in New York and a skywriting intervention in Miami. The T-shirts from her Six Inch Heel line will be exhibited at the Museum für Gestaltung in Zürich starting in February, and an upcoming multimedia study of he 19th-century insurgent journalist/industrialist Nelly Bly is slated to open this March in a new gallery in Geneva. I talked to Mitrani at her Soho studio about cartoons, Claud Cahun, and getting flagged on Craigslist. – by Emily Segal

When did you begin making films?

In 1999, I made a short film called Rita Goes to the Supermarket. In every aisle of the supermarket Rita finds these different phantoms. Did I tell you this story? It’s true: I was a housewife in Barranquilla, Colombia and I went to the supermarket and this woman stopped me in the vegetable section and offered me two breast implants (laughs). So I took them and I actually turned around to see if a camera was filming. I put them in and tried them on, thinking: this isn’t even the shampoo aisle! It’s vegetables! Do I cry? Of course at the time I was reading all this lesbian jewish feminism.

Who was this woman?

A promoter, from a South American company. Effectively, all my work has a basis in reality. I decided to make this little short film. The woman in the film walks through every aisle and finds different ghosts of femininity. There’s a scene where she buys meat and drips it everywhere. She meets all these different people: Lady Di, Frida Khalo, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a very famous nun. At the end of her life, de la Cruz signed a document saying, “I, the worst of all.”

In the film, the characters almost look like they’re in drag.
I was living in Colombia then, so I was very influenced by Almodovar, by the color, by my surroundings – not to mention a very charged hyperfeminity. When I came to New York, I did a masters at the Actors Studio – first I was a lawyer, before the theater. For me, form and content were the same. I was more inclined to take into account every part of the aesthetic, from costumes to set design, and videos to go with them. So my work was already becoming less ‘theater,’ more multimedia.

Let’s talk about how you came to the idea of the Single Shoe series, your shoe-objects that fit two feet into one shoe.
I did a piece in 2004 called Some Historic / Some Hysteric at the New Stage Theater company in New York. All the women in the space were silent and the only woman who was permitted to speak was the narrator, perched on this very, very high platform shoe, wearing a long red dress: sexy, sexy, sexy, sexy. She was basically this icon, the only one who was able to speak, and I was interested in her concomitant power and powerlessness...

And how that endowed her with the permission to speak?
Yes. The shoe was inspired by French fetish shoes, but we decided to take it out of that context and apply it to this all-powerful heroine, because it reminded me a little bit of how psychologically you can feel totally seductive, completely powerful, dominating the world, and at the same time it’s completely useless, since you’re running around in these crazy shoes with this cramp in your toe. I was trying to tame the stereotype.

I like the whole idea of being seductive while simultaneously bound.
That was the first idea, to have this bound icon that could speak for the hysterics. And then I became so obsessed with the shoes I didn’t care about the actresses. That’s what I become, the complete servant of my work (laughs). I always say if I wasn’t a feminist I’d be a misogynist. So then I became obsessed with the shoes and thought: why don’t I do more, you know, domesticize the fetish – not to try to make it sexy or appealing or anything, just bring it out of that context, put it in different scenarios. So I made maryjanes because of the typical childhood connotation. I’m always interested in cliches, in stereotypes of representation. After the maryjanes, I did a series of pumps and maribou mules – recreating very identifiable styles through history of fashion. At my show at Spade and Partners in New York I exhibited the shoes as objects, independent of the videos that document them. Before, they were sort of like props. I also did the vitrine, which was three women, wearing the nurse-style shoes, locked in the window.

The images are so chilling, in a really good way.
They stood in the vitrine for two days! The girls did rotate every two hours. My post on Craigslist got flagged twice.

Have you done any other fashion-related work recently? I just did a video for Threeasfour. In september, I collaborated on the documentation for their collection. There’s a piece of Yoko Ono’s, Cut Piece, from the late 60s / early 70s, where she’s in front of an audience, and the audience takes a pair of scissors and cuts until she’s basically naked. And it’s very of that period, with the consciousness about the audience. So I thought it would be great to have a video piece to reference the original Yoko Ono piece, which was documented by the Maysles brothers, so I took the documentation of the Threeasfour show and a documentation of the Yoko Ono and did a split screen.

A split screen is about as precise a combination of art and fashion as it gets. It’s funny, in the art world, the vanity about art as being somehow truer or more righteous than fashion. A friend of mine was recently joking about what’s more depressing, to do PR for fashion or art. There’s something lovely about how explicitly fashion is a business.
I believe in eclecticism, I believe in art, in high and low, art as commercial, commercial as art. If you’ve freed yourself from a fantasy of purity, you can navigate. It’s the articulation of Bordieu, which we all know when we go to these stupid art fairs: how blatant is that?

I mean, fashion week is also a trade show. But in a way it feels less like a car convention than the Frieze fair does. Still, there’s always something embarrassing about being obsessed with fashion.

My work has always been an intersection of the two worlds. When I first did the Hysteria show, we wanted to make some T-shirts to raise funds for the theater. Do you know the artist Claude Cahun?

The queercore Surrealist. Who did self-portraits.
Did you know she was fucking her step sister? How hot is that?! In 2003, nobody knew who the fuck Claude Cahun was. The Grey Gallery at NYU had a show of Maya Deren, Claude Cahun, and Cindy Sherman, and I got obsessed. So when we were doing the hysteria video, we had a black and white photograph as a mask with the lips cut out and the Cahun character was talking about how hysteria was amazing, how all beauty should be convulsive or should not exist at all. I ended up doing a series of T-shirts based on her iconic photograph that says “I am in training don’t kiss me.” It was such a success, I did another that said “beware of domestic objects.” And then it was very funny because everyone got so fixated on the T-shirts and wanted more, so we did a line called Six Inch Heel, with six limited edition T-shirts of different sayings. One was based on Colette: “the only thing that keeps me from crying is the mascara on my eyelashes.” We used fashion as a dialogue, as a reference to something else. And my work is always like that, a constant dialogue with all these different ideas of women.

Fashion is always deferred that way, which is what’s so appealing about it as a medium or a text. 
At the same time, what’s so nice about it is that there’s something ultimately anti-intellectual about fashion.
Right: first it’s visual, but then you recognize your lover, you want to give your panties away for somebody to smell on the airplane. It’s tactile, it’s architectonic.

A fashion show is a completely visual spectacle, but I think clothing is most significantly a personal-spatial experience. There are always so many references at once, fashion is always quoting, but never directly.
It’s incessantly quoting. There’s no neutral stance. You’re always making a choice. If you’re wearing jeans-and-sneakers, that’s a choice too. It’s so foundational to your identity, I don’t understand how people can devalue it so much. Just look at the power of fashion in dictatorships, in the military –

In medicine.
The history of the world is backed up by this. Take a judge: in Spanish the word is “investidura,” to enter: when you enter the clothes, you enter the persona. It’s a kind of magic, the power of the costume. It’s beautiful in a way because it’s true; like Fidel Castro, or Lagerfeld, or Gaddafi.

I love Gaddafi!
I was talking about this with some friends – can you imagine a look book of Gadaffi?! Amazing.

Think about Balmain – I hate it, I think it’s just trash, but their spangled military schtick would look so fly on Gaddafi.
Or take cartoons, for example. Think of Olive Oyl from Popeye: her power is that you can identify her instantaneously. I remember when I was a little girl, one day – I don’t know if I invented this – but you know Wilma Flintstone?

Of course.
Well one day, I saw Wilma with long hair, and a different dress. I don’t know if it was a dream or if I really saw it.

There’s something so unnerving about that.

Yes! And exciting!

There’s a joke about that in the Simpsons sometimes, watching Marge comb her hair and having it spring immediately back up.

I want to see Gadaffi, Olive Oyl, and Claude Cahun in a row.

You’re working on a project right now about the Nelly Bly, the journalist who exposed New York’s insane asylums in 1887 and then, two years later, travelled around the world in only 72 days, 
beating Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days” record.

Right now, the project consists of two “seasons” in a bag, since global warming has left us with only Spring and Winter. The Spring version is a black bag with three pieces of black silk clothing, for a woman to travel around the world, and all the pieces are versatile: the dress can serve as a negligee, the kimono can be worn for the beach or over leggings at night. Winter in a bag is a white leather bag with the same three pieces in white cashmere. Each bag also includes a manual, sunglasses by Selima, a teacup, a jar of cold cream and a leather clutch. I’m also making paper Nelly Bly monoliths, among other things. They’ll all be exhibited in Geneva in March.

I found out recently that Nelly Bly, after being this prophetic journalist, went on to be come a very successful industrialist: she manufactured steel containers. In her case, being radical didn’t have to preclude mainstream success.
She has a completely modern spirit. Since I’m also interested in hysteria, I love the fact that she had the guts to go under cover as a journalist in a mental institution. Women have always served as recipients for instability – the crazy woman, the mad woman, the witch – and in contemporary fashion you have all these references of the different things they’ve been assigned. I’m reading the biography of Jung, and whats amazing is that so many of his patients started off crazy, then got cured, and then ended up as doctors. And I think there’s a similarity with Nelly Bly, daring to enter a mental institution and blur the line between sanity and insanity. There’s a certain thing about women: they’re more permeable. They become prophets of their own time a little bit sooner than men.   ◊

See Single Shoe in the Prognosis Issue fashion shoot

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