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The Real Face of Narcissister: A Conversation with the Woman Behind the Mask

While Narcissister may appear to be a mannequin that sprang to life one day, she is the result of years of work in a number of disciplines.

Photo by Matthew Leifheit

While Narcissister may appear to be a mannequin that sprang to life one day, she is the result of years of work in a number of disciplines. The artist behind the anti-persona had already danced professionally, made a living as a window designer and stylist, and completed the Whitney Independent Study Program when she first descended upon the New York nightlife scene in a plastic mask to execute “burlesque-type” pieces that are often as unsettling as they are inventive. In Self-Gratifier, the artist mounts an abstracted exercise bike that whips her as she pedals. In Hot Dog, she is dressed as an oversized wiener that emerges from its bun like a vampire from a coffin. And in Every Woman, she draws articles of clothing from various orifices and proceeds to dress herself with them, performing a reverse striptease.


Recently Narcissister invited roughly thirty women—friends of friends—to don her signature mask and exercise their right to roam the streets of New York with bare breasts. The action, and the stills that resulted from it, created quite a buzz. Returning from a busy summer of touring and residencies, the enigmatic provocateur will perform in the flesh, and the plastic, at The Hole on September 17th, as part of FutureFeminism, curated by sisters-in-crime Kembra Pfahler, Antony Hegarty, Johanna Constantine and Bianca and Sierra Casady of CocoRosie.

VICE: How did you come up with the name Narcissister?
Narcissister: I had a short list. At the top were Narcissister and Moxy. I’m glad I picked Narcissister! I was flipping through the dictionary, looking for words I could combine. I realized that by adding an “er” to narcissist I could extend the definition and evoke sisterhood, especially among women of color. It refers to that fact I’m a “sister.”

It’s very catchy. 
Thanks. I had a hard studio visit with somebody recently, and he told me how much he disliked the name. It made me think about it.

Why did he dislike it? 
He’s an art world person. I think for him it felt, maybe too “catchy,” too commercial. My name has served me well in the performance scene and nightlife scene, and I’m not sure how the art world really thinks about it.

Sculptural work by Narcissister from a recent residency


In the arts right now, there’s a fetish for the interdisciplinary, and “boundary crossing,” to use a nauseating term. But there is also an underlying pressure for one to stake one’s claim firmly in one camp—say, visual art or theater. Although the histories of these forms are intertwined, the values and economic structures around them are different and it can be dangerous, career-wise, for an artist’s work in a particular form to be seen as too ‘contaminated’ by another tradition. Has your involvement in one world ever become a liability in another? 
Absolutely. My interest in keeping my project broad and able to exist in many different scenes is, I’m realizing, unfortunately quite a liability. The feedback I’m getting lately from curators is that my artwork is too entertainment-flavored to be viable for them, and I don’t have objects to sell. And the entertainment people often feel my work is too arty, too opaque in its meaning and standpoint, and too erotic for many “entertainment platforms.” I have faith that in the long-term the broadness and multifaceted nature of my project will be seen as a strong point.

It’s not that you have multiple identities. You have this very singular identity that has multiple venues. 
There are models—John Cameron Mitchell. Or John Waters. The full power of his work is so fully felt now, when we’ve seen over the span of his career that he’s been this cult hero, and made work that is so transgressive, and had a hit Broadway show. I have to think of women—maybe Bjork. People who have had commercial success, whose work has strong artistic resonance, whether it’s lived in the art world or not.


You make all your own costumes. I understand you studied with Faith Ringgold? Did she have an influence on the craft-based aspects of your work?
I did study with her! I went to Brown, but was spending my junior year in Paris. I was dancing, studying at the Sorbonne, and I broke my ankle. So I came back home to San Diego, injured, and finished the year at UCSD. That gave me the opportunity to study with her. I made my own contemporary quilts. I got so interested in the idea of incorporating unusual objects into wall pieces. All of that makes its way into my work as Narcissister—the fabrication of my costumes and unusual elements. Also the politics. She combined craft with racial politics. That made a huge impression.

I first saw you in sort of a burlesque context. Your performances felt subversive, in part because you revealed your body but not your face. And in a scene that had become so much about warm, inviting personalities, you came across as an anonymous, cold, and possibly menacing presence. What’s your relationship to burlesque?
I was designing the windows at Agent Provocateur and a lot of the women who worked there were part of the rockabilly/burlesque scene. I would go see their performances and realized quickly that was something I could do—integrate my background as a dancer with my experience creating tableaus, and bring the content, formality and politics I’d been thinking about in my visual art. I could bring all this to bear in some burlesque-type performance. I was entertained by what I was seeing in the burlesque world but most of it stopped short of where I wanted to go. With some exceptions: Julie Atlas Muz, Dirty Martini, and Rose Wood.


Like you, Julie comes partly from dance, doesn’t she? And she integrates elements of body art into her work.
She was an interesting model. She had been in the Whitney Biennial, and shown at Deitch Projects. She showed me a model for working with the body in a way that felt powerful. But I knew I wanted to go even further than she had-- in that I didn’t want to do something that would sit well in the burlesque world. I’m troubled by the seemingly narrow opportunities for women of color in that world, and the worshipping of a certain standard of beauty I cant’ relate to—the blonde hair and the heavily made-up face and a certain presentation of femininity that I’m interested in transcending. I do think the burlesque world is wonderful in its acceptance of bodies of different shapes and sizes. That has always felt radical to me.

You have said that your choice to wear a mask relates to wanting privacy in your life, as well as onstage—you want to preserve a sense of interiority while you perform. You often dance with your eyes closed, and even if they’re not closed, your elaborate costumes obstruct your vision—and you like it!
Yes! [Laughs] I do!

What is the importance of privacy for you? In a broader sense, is privacy something your work is addressing?
I’ve only thought about the importance of protecting my privacy. But I love that you’re presenting the possibility of that reality to me, that my work might make statements about privacy. When an artist uses their own body, face, eyes, it’s always going to be about their experience, how they look, how they’re aging, their presentation of supreme or failed femininity or masculinity. There are certain things I can’t change—my body, my skin color—but I want to comment beyond my own subjecthood on issues of race, beauty, and sexuality. Narcissister is nobody. It is a plastic mask that is only animated by the person who is wearing it. The mask becomes a mirror and it’s very rare for artists to make themselves a mirror. It’s so much more common that we get absorbed into them. Into their subjectivity.


Is the gratification you receive as performer different because of the anonymity? 
I’m not interested in adoration. I’m uncomfortable when people come up and say “You’re Narcissister arent’ you? I love your work!” I always ask, “What do you love about my project?” I want to understand what’s exciting for them. I don’t just want to absorb this vague comment and walk away feeling like a bigger person.

What is this mask, anyway? 
I just found out the story of the mask! Narcissistically, I had taken the mask and claimed it as the face of my project. I learned it is a re-purposed wig form, designed by a woman named Verna Doran in Los Angeles in the 60s. It’s not being made anymore. She died just last year.

Where did you get it?
They’re everywhere. They’re very easy to find. We’ve all seen them but we don’t remember. Paul McCarthy used it in one of his performances, but that’s not surprising, because he’s LA-based and it’s an LA-based company, and the masks are part of the cultural landscape there.

This summer you invited women to go topless in New York, while wearing the mask.
Yes, just taking their children to school, window shopping, walking down the street, riding their bikes. I did it too. I had no idea how people would respond to us. It felt very risky, a bit scary.

Women on the street are harassed normally. If you’re topless I imagine that might increase—but then how does the mask function? What happened?
This is an interesting comment on street culture. Most of us walk down the street now looking at our phones. So most people didn’t even notice there was a woman, with her breasts out, walking past them. The people that did… mostly the response was mild. Women seemed inspired by what we were doing. Men seemed impressed by our boldness. I do think it shocked people out of their reverie, their habits, to suddenly see this woman with her breasts out. And a mask. And the mask, which is always disconcerting.


When I Google you the first phrase that pops up is “Narcissister real face.”
Isn’t that weird? I had a couple of moments of getting a lot of publicity—when I did the America’s Got Talent and the outing with Marilyn Manson.

What ever happened with America’s Got Talent? 
I ended up going to Las Vegas. I performed a piece that the producers selected for me. It wasn’t appropriate and I didn’t have enough time to adapt and rehearse it. The judges actually don’t know what they will be seeing, and they were shocked. I think they were really hoping I’d be the freak on the show, one who would barely pass the censors.

What piece was it? 
They picked Hot Dog.

So you were shooting ketchup and mustard from your breasts?
I was. And embodying a giant hot dog. In my version, I pull hot dogs out of my body, I serve hot dogs off of my body, and there’s a lot of suggestive gesturing. I tried to tame all of this. But I just could not stand up as a big red phallus without it being inappropriate. There were children in the audience. I don’t think the producers realized how strong of a statement it would be.

Was it a traumatic experience?
It was, because of my belief in professionalism and putting my best foot forward.

It’s like the Coliseum isn’t it? Is it intense to submit yourself to that kind of judgment? 
Yes, but how is this different really from the art world? You could get a scathing review in the New York Times, or be made to sound bad in an interview. This is interesting to discuss because I’m about to go be on France Got Talent. America’s Got Talent contacted me many times before I said yes, but when the opportunity to be on the program in France came up I didn’t resist at all. People might ask, “Why is she interested in these low brow possibilities? Why is she diluting her work? What about the politics?” Is it possible to be strongly political and appear on these talent competitions? I think it’s radical that I would want my work to be seen on such a huge platform. If one aspires to show only in the art world, who is going to see their work? Elitist culture, people already in the know, who are already liberal. To be able to reach all kind of people—different classes, ages groups—feels righteous. And I’m protected by the mask. Narcissister can always only be a mirror of what’s around her.

So she can operate in any context. France Got Talent becomes part of her piece, in a way? 
She can’t really be absorbed. She always has this additional surface. That’s how she keeps her power.

Joseph Keckler is an interdisciplinary artist, writer, and operatic bass-baritone whom the Village Voice named “Best Downtown Performance Artist" in 2013. Follow him on Twitter.