Since the beginning of 2015 Londoners in the East End have been exposed to billboards displaying a leather-clad woman in all manner of positions. She stands in sexualised positions, in a sort of hyperreal advert that objectifies women, yet she’s self-assured and inquisitive. But this wasn’t commissioned by an all-male team of an advertising company or by the likes of Terry Richardson. “Waxchick” is a continuing project by London-based artist Vasilisa Forbes that explores and scrutinises the advertising industry and the standards of female representation. Using the glossy visuals often found in branding, and the aesthetics of Pop, “Waxchick” forces the viewer to question what they see and how they see it through its video and photography campaign. 2015 might have been a good year for women in the arts. For instance, MediaGuardian100, the Guardian’s List of the media’s most influential people, saw the number of women double since last year. Yet in the street and at the workplace women all over the world still have to endure sexual objectification and discrimination, and increasingly more women are determined to fight it. Sleek met Vasilisa Forbes to talk about the deathless scrutiny of women’s bodies, how nudity can be empowering and why playing a role in a “reality TV” show was so liberating.
What triggered “Waxchick”?
Vasilisa Forbes: The project itself was initiated more for the purpose of mockery and scrutiny of the advertising industry and the standards within imagery of women. The idea was to create artworks that would feel like large-scale, minimalist but bold advertisements for some kind of fetish brand or camera brand or other such in a subtle way. What did happen was however a sense of empowerment regardless of the response the works received from the public and the censoring (fairly rightly) that the works went through. The film in particular was a real emotional response to things that I had experienced in my own life, and the only way to get that sensation across was to put the subject in a vulnerable, exposed role and give the viewer the voyeuristic eye. The images can be called “sexist” because it is what they discuss. But it is more about discussing the way we approach women and the female body as objects of scrutiny, sexualisation and availability for “use”.
In 2011 you were part of Dalston Superstars, Vice UK’s first “reality TV” show, where you played “Vee”, one of the five London creatives. How did that shape the artist you are now?
That show with Vice allowed me to really become an “object” on the screen, a target for opinions and a “character”. It was what probably drove out the character that appears in “Waxchick” – a role of a figure that is really unashamed and beyond shame, that can literally do things that seem and feel “taboo” or shocking in such an uninhibited style. Who cares if the whole internet has seen your boobs? Or are they sacred? Which gives you more freedom?
Doing that show disposed of all my feelings of inhibition, sacredness of the public character, and sense of “behind the canvas/camera” as an artist. Suddenly I could be any character. People managed to believe, even fairly close friends, that the “role” I was playing in that show actually was indeed all nothing other than a genuine fly-on-the-wall documentary and not a character at all. It meant that from then on my public character and my real character were completely separate. One could create a character entirely. And “Waxchick” was the first character after “Vee”. There’ll be others.
What has your latest character, “Waxchick”, achieved?
What I did with “Waxchick” was to simply pose a questions to the street-viewer – is this offensive? Why? Does this irritate you? And through that I hope to free up the notion of what we are seeing and why it bothers us. I’m not striving for some idealised notion of equality but for a freeing up of taboos. Getting rid of the taboo that showing sex is bad and that women being hyper-sexualised in the way they desire is bad or vulgar. As well as creating this character that transcends the two – crass and abrasive, vulgar and powerful but also vulnerable and exposed. It’s a journey between the ideal way to feel and what really happens when you put on a red catsuit: people think you’re offering them sex. There are a lot of girls doing that now and it is exciting and it is promoting a new vision of woman; one that can be in-control of her own desire.
Some clothing brands have increased sales since they stopped retouching ads. Do you think the industry at large is listening to people’s criticism, including yours?
Yes, definitely, despite thinking that Photoshop is not the problem but the way the characters are passive, they act out fantasies. And the constant images of girls posing for pictures like hungry puppies wanting to be had, be seen, be valued. Dolls and pin ups without purpose of their own – that makes me sad. What really bothers me is seeing women as perpetual decoration for everything – for brands, for musicians, for the value of items. What about her as a character? What does she care about and does she wanna say something? And again – it’s not their nudity in the video that is bad, but the fact it has no purpose other than to make others feel strange. It’s not empowering nudity it’s body parts for sale.
Text by Will Furtado