Vaginal Davis speaks

Larger than life performance artist and music icon, Vaginal Davis, was probably the only person in her native city of Los Angeles to go everywhere on a bicycle way back in the 90s. She finally moved to the more bike-friendly city of Berlin almost six years ago, where her work with the art, music, film and action collective CHEAP became her key focus. Davis’ overwhelming creative output – as a visual artist, in writing and most prominently, on stage – has become a staple of Berlin’s queer subculture as well as its more mainstream theatre and stage venues.
Her apartment is located in the heart of Schöneberg’s “Rote Insel”, the historic neighbourhood that was once home to such luminaries as Marlene Dietrich and Albert Einstein. A fitting address for Davis, who has covered the walls of her home with colourful magazine clippings of faces and genitals, scribbles, sketches and notes from friends accumulated over the years – an ever-growing collage

sleek: Were the walls too white for your taste?
Vaginal Davis: All my friends joke that when they leave, they will always have stuck something on them. I like printed images, I don’t surf the internet for imagery. In fact, I’m really bad with computers. I don’t like the immediacy of it, there’s no mystique to the process of discovery.

sleek: But you’re considered one of the world’s first bloggers, you have an enormous readership and major publications have written about your blog, “Speaking from the Diaphragm”.
VD: I started it back in the 90s, as my diary. I had no idea what blogging was. Then someone told me that I what I was doing was actually a blog. I would write an entry by hand, then type it and send it to my web master from an internet café. I’m very lo-tech.

sleek: You’re a very busy woman, what’s next on your agenda?
VD: I’m currently working on a theatre piece, “The Communist Bigamist”, directed by my fellow CHEAP art collective member Susanne Sachße, who you might remember from Bruce LaBruce’s film, Raspberry Reich. It’s inspired by the 1953 Hollywood film The Bigamist, directed by Ida Lupino. Lupino was one of the few female directors in Hollywood’s golden era and she played in her own movie, too. There are many intertwined layers in the play: Susanne plays Ida, but she’s also Ruth Fischer, Germany’s first lady communist, while I’m both myself and American activist Angela Davis. And both our characters are married to communism, the bigamist.

sleek: We’ll probably have to see it to understand it, but in essence this is what you do best – morphing gender, class and race, low and high culture, camp and politics. In fact, you embody it.
VD: I’m intersex, born with both female and male genitalia, so I’m a strange hybrid creature. I’m also part German, quarter Jewish, my father was born in Mexico and my mother is French Creole. People would always stare at me, so I figured I might as well just be on stage!

sleek: You’ve been embraced by academia, teaching performance at Berlin’s Weißensee University, Frankfurt’s Städlschule, Princeton, Vassar, Columbia and most recently, Malmö. Next stop is Goldsmiths College. Is teaching more gratifying than performing?
VD: It’s often the students who petition to have me come. I love teaching. I invest a lot of time and get very involved. I’m not a dogmatic person. I mean, the students get a syllabus and everything but it’s more a ‘salon’ style of teaching. I make hour-long studio visits and do a lot of gentle nudging. These visits get intense. We talk for hours, get emotional and cry. I’m like the Big Black Mama and everyone wants to nurse at my breast, get that chocolate milk!

sleek: What advice to you have for students who want to become performance artists?
VD: I usually remain in touch well beyond the seminars, and collaborate with former students on new projects. It’s important to be connected to youth, you know, being a woman of a certain age… It keeps me young and vibrant. I’m never going to have any children of my own – but I can be the mentor. However, I do not encourage anyone to be a performer. Not everyone is meant to be on stage, you know! There’s nothing I hate more than karaoke. Not everyone should be given a mike. I’m a little dictatorial like that.

sleek: So you’re the anti-Beuys?
VD: Not everyone’s an artist… No, no, no!

sleek: What makes a good performance artist in your opinion?
VD: To me Josephine Baker, aside from being the first black international superstar, was also a performance artist through and through. She created her own biography, her own mythology, she was sensational! And she sought to mix all races by adopting a so-called ‘rainbow tribe’ of children. She was a little cuckoo too, but who isn’t? Considering where she came from. I can relate to that.

sleek: Your work is specifically focused on gender issues. Do race and class always play a role, too?
VD: I grew up in inner city L.A. I’m not middle class. I have a slight disdain for the wealthy but you can’t help that when you grow up poor. I always have this underlying urge to ‘kill the rich’, but I do it on stage instead. If you choose to work with me you have to know where I’m from. I’m a sweetheart, I’ll give you my last pantyhose, or the bra off my back, but I can get down and I can throw down. Let me tell you, when a black girl takes off her earrings, you know she’s ready to fight!

sleek: Would you say that the new piece is a non-violent, keep-your-earrings-on answer to current economic trends in European politics?
VD: It’s a political piece but it’s not dogmatic. It’s playful and whimsical, and hopefully will make you think. Europe is going backwards. Susanne Sachße lost her agent after she appeared in Raspberry Reich because of the real sex scenes! And politically, it’s disconcerting that people have such short memories. History will repeat itself.

sleek: That’s a bleak outlook.
VD: Oh yeah, I believe we’ll create our own Armageddon. I don’t understand why people want to have babies when there are already so many unwanted children out there. Just adopt, why overpopulate the planet? My mom was an actress, she didn’t want to be a mother and a wife, but women had less of a choice at the time. But today? People say the human race will ebb then and I say “great!”. Maybe something less damaging to the planet will arise. A new species will take over. Here’s to the new species!


Interview by Hili Perlson

Check out our interview with Matt Lambert

Dining with the gods of clubbing

The Berghain club is a Berlin institution. We reckon it’s responsible for roughly 87 percent of the city’s tourism, but we’ll cut the owners some slack because it was in this shrine of concrete and steel that we spent some the best nights of our lives. A gourmet experience might not be the first thing this club calls to mind, but since the owners have done everything right so far, they can surely be trusted to make their new add-on bistro, Kreuz Friedrichs, into an epicurean winter highlight.

Kreuz Friedrichs, Rüdersdorfer Straße 70, Thu-Sun.

Awst & Walther

That the whole is greater than the sum of its parts can be seen in the artistic production of husband-and-wife team Manon Awst and Benjamin Walther. Dresden-born Walther worked as a theatre director, while Manon Awst, who hails from Wales, studied architecture at Cambridge University. In their collaborative sculptures, performances and paintings, they explore power dynamics, ephemeral states and the divides between mental and physical self-perception. Funnelled into their work is a distinct approach to the exhibition space as a stage, a room for projection and for constructing narratives. They explore ways in which space impacts the body, physically and psychologically, through installations that are shown in conjunction with performance. While sculpture traditionally is made to last, Awst & Walther work with materials such as gelatine, ice or even fruit, making sculptures that are touched by the passing of time.

Hannes Gruber

After a six-year break from exhibiting, Hannes Gruber re-introduced himself to the art scene with a performance resembling a job interview – suit, nametag and all – making a humorous and no-frills comment on the market mentality of the art world. His body of work, which consists of numerous site-specific installations with manipulated found objects, deals with notions of cost, value production, and the banality of everyday life. Oscillating between earnestness and irony, Gruber seeks to achieve a new pseudo-innocence through art. An installation called Softcleandream I involved covering an uneven floor with 150 litres of the cheapest liquid household detergent, available in “Green Apple” and “Rose”, drawing attention to the unbearable, chemical stench and fluorescent, toxic colours. Beyond materiality, Gruber also deflates the value of romanticised notions, as in a series on maritime-themed paintings, with plenty of nods to art history.

Markus Zimmermann

Markus Zimmermann is an architect of the viewer’s eye. His constructions are wonders of space that, however small, can expand into infinity. Take his raree-type cardboard boxes or used ring-binders, crappy enough from the outside, but a gaze through a peephole reveals a world of awe and wonder, likening the viewer to a scientist gazing into new universes under a microscope. Made of the cheapest materials, such as the plastic inlays you find in chocolate boxes, these scenarios, lit by whatever light comes through the hole as well as specially placed cracks, are not complex in construction but they spur the imagination to see mind-blowing things, from prehistoric landscapes to futurist cathedrals. Lately, Zimmermann has started to expand his works into real space, creating walk-in boxes, and he has embarked on a new challenge: how to make the inside and outside of a space visible at the same time.

The bold and the beautiful at General Idea

At the end of the New York Fashion Week, we wanted to give our readers a wrap-up, but then we decided to focus on the one show that caught our attention the most. General Idea presented a coherent menswear line of pure coolness. The bold colors, the playful details and the ermm.. ok ok, we admit it! It’s all about the models! Enjoy.

All photos by Eka Halim

Designer Watch: Jacquemus

French chic is back! And a young dude from the South of France, called Simon Porte Jacquemus is to blame! At least partially. Simon is living the dream of every young fashion designer: he resides in Montmartre and sells his collections to Opening Ceremony and to the hyped online-shop L’Exception. When we ask him what it takes to be the new name on everybody’s lips, he thoughtfully answers: “There is a lack of new passionate people in the fashion industry. Young designers are afraid to break through with their ideas, and often simply copy paste the style of big fashion houses. It’s almost like working with engineers instead of creative people! My attitude got me in trouble when I was studying fashion in Paris, so I decided to leave school and do my own thing.”

Simon founded his eponymous label Jacquemus two years ago, when he was a mere twenty years old and bored with his fashion assistant job at a magazine. Born in the early 90s, he wanted to express the fashion codes of his decade by fusing bourgeois chic and pop authenticity, naming Isabelle Adjani as an inspiration. “I’m rather fascinated by Isabelle Adjani, I don’t like the word muse, as I don’t have any. In all her television appearances in the 80s, she never overplayed her role as a celebrity. She was presenting herself in a very natural way and then she went back home to take care of her children. A real woman; charismatic and simple. That’s how I want my collections to be like.”

With this in mind, he started to work on a first small Autumn/Winter collection entitled Hiver-Froid and promptly continued with Les Filles en Blanc for the last spring/summer season, both girly yet minimalist collections that captivated the attention of the Parisian fashion scene. He didn’t want to tell his stories on an usual catwalk and made some attempts at happenings instead: with his last collection at the entrance of the Dior show, and lately with the new one at Vogue’s Fashion Night Out in Paris, simulating a fashion strike on the night of the big shopping event. “I like the concept of happenings, but I have not thought about it more than that, I just gathered some friends and dressed them up in my collection”, explains Simon. “My models are always girls I personally admire, they’re more likely to be type faces, than to be on the pages of glossy magazines. And I must admit, I like this Gainsbourg-ish touch, being surrounded by beautiful women!”

Getting positive feedback–French Vogue’s Emmanuelle Alt already interviewed him–he started to commercialize his new Autumn/Winter 2011/12 collection, called L’Usine. Simon teamed up with French artist Bertrand Le Pluard in order to create a video that would narrate the story behind this collection: the monotonous life of girls at work in a factory.

Maybe it’s his naïve yet sarcastic vintage aesthetics or his endless love for sensual women that make his style so special, we don’t really know. But what we know for sure is that he perfectly expresses that certain french je-ne-sais-quoi, without overloading it. “I never considered to change and do something else, designing is the only thing I can do,”  he tells us.

Eley Kishimoto’s prints come to life

Wakako Kishimoto and Mark Eley of Eley Kishimoto sent us this enchanting short film, produced for their Autumn/Winter 2011-2012 collection. The film, which will be shown as part of the ‘A shaded View on Fashion Film Festival’ in Centre Pompidou in October, is a fantasy-filled visual play on the prints from the new collection. “A series of graphic prints narrates the classic fairytale theme,” Mark Eley told sleek. “The graveyard for past-sell-by-dates is given a kiss of life by the pulse of an old TV set. The Secret fairground party behind the latched door repaints the dusty attic in a lurid palette.” Though we suspected it, who knew that so much fantasy goes into each of Eley Kishimoto’s print designs?

Get the message

Fashion designers Kyle Callanan and Jen Gilpin met in Berlin, founded the label Don’t Shoot The Messengers and have been delivering their message loud and clear ever since. With seductive combinations of leather and silk as the base note of each of their collections, DSTM’s attitude effortlessly treads the fine line between elegance and sexiness. Sculptural contours and masses of black make DSTM one of Berlin’s most exciting labels. The boutique also offers a fine selection of accessories to complement their clothes – read killer pumps and luscious silk scarves by French label Milleneufcentquatrevingtquatre.

Don’t Shoot the Messengers, Rückerstraße 10. Mon-Sat 1-8pm.

REH Kunst

Not that Berlin had no space left for showing art, but an exhibition venue that comes with a built-in option to expand makes an interesting concept nonetheless. The REH Kunst space is housed in a so-called “Raumerweiterungshalle”, a moveable, variable architectural structure developed in the former GDR, made of 8 segments which can be telescoped or folded to create a space from 2 to 16 metres long. Needless to say, artists exhibiting here have to respond to the specifics of the space. Next in line is Konstantino Dregos (3 September – 2 October, 2011).

REH Kunst, Kopenhagener Str. 17. Thu-Sun 1-6pm.

Courtesy Valeska Hageney | Art Agency Berlin.