Michelle Handelman creates provocative works that are both confrontational and visually stunning. She deftly plumbs the depths of human morality by exploring the extremes of attraction and repulsion, of beauty and the grotesque, revealing the artifice of contemporary culture while simultaneously co-opting many of its deceptions to her own advantage. Over the years Handelman’s work has moved from self-portraiture to large-scale cinematic installations that encompass video, performance, photography and public art. She is a Guggenheim Fellow and has exhibited internationally including Centre Pompidou, Paris; Institute of Contemporary Art, London; Participant, Inc., New York; Guangzhou 53 Art Museum, China; American Film Institute, Los Angeles; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and MIT List Visual Arts Center. She is currently developing a new Film & Media program at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York City.
I spoke with Michelle Handelman just after her premiere Irma Vep, The Last Breath, (2013) a final work in a series that includes her installations This Delicate Monster (2004/07) and Dorian, a Cinematic Perfume (2009/12). Irma Vep, The Last Breath uses the silent film character IrmaVep as a launching point to discuss issues of cinema construction, criminality and erased histories of both queer and female identity. Irma Vep, The Last Breath is now on exhibit at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University.
AL: I would like to start with how and why you directed your art practice to video at a time when it wasn’t widely used.
Michelle: I started working in video in the early 90s. When I first started to think of myself as a serious artist I was working in photography, creating these theatrical self-portraits inspired by German expressionism, feminism and camp icons like Jack Smith and Steven Arnold. Soon I was finding the need to express myself through live performance and 16mm film loops became a part of those performances. From there it was an easy transition to video. Video was so great because it was so instantaneous and cheap but I hated analog editing. It wasn’t until the mid-90s and the introduction of non-linear editing that I really threw myself into the medium.
AL:Given that production expenses are costly and the challenges of marketing and selling video works to collectors, how do you maintain a commitment to a medium that is uniquely financially challenging?
Michelle: Media production is hugely expensive but you know, I’ve never based my practice on what’s financially practically. I’ve been very lucky to receive grants for my last few projects but this is a new thing for me. Before this I was always spending my own money. In fact, I spend way too much of my own money on my projects, but hey,,,what else am I going to spend it on! (laughter) While video artists are more ubiquitous than ever, and even collectors are coming around and having their homes outfitted for media display, there’s now the new problem of the art fair. Art Fairs are now the market — in some ways they are replacing the gallery. It’s a mobile visual platform, and while I love its globalism, it’s a horrible place to show video! I’ve never seen a video installation at art fair that I would consider successful…and when I say successful I mean presented in a way that the artist envisioned it.
AL: How did the Broad Art Museum show come to happen?
Michelle: The executive director of the Broad, Michael Rush, has been a huge supporter of my work over the years, and few years ago we were in China doing a show at Guangzhou 53 Art Museum. He asked me what I was working on next and where I was premiering it. When I told him that I hadn’t locked down a place to premier yet, he said “Let’s premiere it at the Broad!”I was blown away. First, it’s just incredible to have a person believe in your work so strongly that they will give you a show sight unseen, and second – the museum is gorgeous! It’s designed by Zaha Hadid and the entire building looks like a German expressionist spaceship.
AL: How did you have to prepare and scale the installation to work there?
Michelle: All of the walls and doorways in the museum are slanted, and the galleries are built with acute angles. I wanted to take advantage of the way the whole space works against gravity. In Irma Vep, The Last Breath there are two architectural spaces, one is a the psychiatrist’s office with a white leather, illuminated couch and the other is an illuminated ticket booth, pure white on the outside and a messy viscous red and black on the inside. When shot from above the ticket booth looks just like a coffin, and if you look at a blueprint for the Hadid gallery you’ll see it’s the same shape as my ticket booth! I angled the projections to work with and against the asymmetry of the room. All the acute angles add to the doom and gloom of the piece. I feel very lucky to have this opportunity to premiere at such an incredible museum.
AL: Do you find galleries reluctant to take on video artists due to the limitations of sales? Given that most video installations are purchased by museums, rather than private collectors do you feel your videos are best enjoyed in a populated public setting or something more intimate like a collectors home?
Michelle: This brings us back to the art fair issue. I think many galleries don’t want to take on video artists because the path to making sales is less direct. And the whole process of exhibiting is more complex as it involves technology and people knowing how to operate that technology. It’s really not that difficult but I understand it can be intimidating. And there’s the sound and lighting situations of the art fairs that are most challenging. Most video works need to be seen in absolute darkness or in the very least, dimmed lighting situations and we all know that art fairs are full of lights light, and limited square footage. I’ve been doing large-scale works for the past 10 years and it’s always a challenge to scale the work for different spaces, but it’s a good challenge— every presentation becomes a different iteration and it keeps the work alive.
AL: Have recent technological and digital developments influenced the ease or complexity of making work? Does the technology in any way dictate the art form ?
Michelle: Absolutely. Technological developments have made many things so much easier, yet with that ease comes the difficulty of filtering. Now there are so many options it’s hard to choose only one! Do I go with the green filter, the red filter, do I edit through sound cues or link the sound to the image….too many options! Technology is synonymous with possibility, so new forms offer new ways of seeing.
AL: Would you say there is a uniting theme to your overall oeuvre?
Michelle: It’s always been about sex and death. From the beginning I’ve made work that’s highly personal, a pouring out of my own existential questioning. Working from a place of pain and pleasure. I don’t feel I’ve resolved anything, I just keep getting deeper and unlocking, revealing that which resides under the surface. My work vacillates between the psychological and the intellectual, the physical and the intangible, the raw and the formal. Over time my work has gone from narrative to gestural and now it’s veering back to more narrative. There are things that cannot be expressed through words, and there are things that can only be expressed through words. It all depends on what part of the brain I want to access.
AL: Where do you see your work going? Has story, or rather narrative, always been a part of your work? Your work is so varied, yet conceptually cohesive. Are there certain subjects you feel you have resolved or need to further pursue? Is there a direction in which you feel headed?
Michelle: Ultimately I think that people really don’t change that much, and all of these works are about the human condition….human fallibility. There’s something about the cliché, the eternal quality of clichés that I’m attracted to…the fact that so much can change around us…technology, political systems, cultural norms, and yet being human remains an exercise in redundancy. For instance Wilde’s “Dorian” is a tale about narcissism and decadent self-destruction. It’s a story as old as the Egyptians, as old as recorded history…the young and beautiful selling their soul for eternal youth. It’s happening right now in plastic surgeon’s offices around the world…more than ever. Baudelaire wrote about the sweet escape from ennui through substances and the malevolent forces of nature….all eternal states of being and nothingness. I don’t really need to do anything to turn them into contemporary tales because they already are…that’s what makes them classic. But I’m not interested in making period pieces or staying true through an adaptation…I take the source material and find parallels with my own life, and the lives of my friends, then reimagine our life through this existing framework.
AL: What is ultimately your magical goal and target of accomplishment?
Michelle: I want to make work that blows people away…work that gets inside a person and resides there forever. I remember being in my late teens and seeing Kenneth Anger’s work for the first time and I was utterly transported. It was like I met my maker, I found the source. I want my work to be that for others….to be the source…an initiation.
Irma Vep Broad Art Museum: Extended until 30th March 2014
Interview: Lizanne Merrill © Artlyst 2014
Photo: Handelman Broad Museum: “Irma Vep, The Last Breath, 2013, Michelle Handelman, Eli & Edythe Broad Art Museum, Installation Shot.”