A Portfolio and Conversation with Susan Cianciolo

Posted on February 9, 2017 by Matthew Domescek

A Magazine Curated By presents an exclusive zine by Susan Cianciolo, photographed by Lasse Kusk. The portfolio documents a recreation of Susan’s performance from and contribution to the New York New Work show in Tokyo, February 5th & 6th, 2017. The HPGR Gallery show featured designers Barragan, Chrishabana, Eckhaus Latta, Heidi Lee, Homic, Luar Zepol, Nhu Duong, Petra Ptackovr, and artist Susan Cianciolo’s interpretation of the theme 9/11. 

The following conversation took place in New York on February 8th, 2017.

Tell us about New York New Work.  

When I was first asked I declined because of the timing, as it is very close to the Whitney Biennial project, which is a very big investment of time and focus. I asked Kiva, who I make the Home collection with, “Why don’t you go and show our Home collection?” We went back and forth, but the theme was based on 9/11, which is my birthday and I was the only contributor who was actually there. Everyone else asked was much younger. There were key things I said to myself, thinking this is kind of perfect because I love to be put into situations where I don’t necessarily fit into the group. I love the obscurity of being in a group where maybe I am so opposite to the other designers, but then seeing this one assignment and how we could all interpret it. To put myself out of context was great for me and all the boundaries of asking myself: am I officially an artist now? But then I go to Tokyo and I’m in this designers’ show and I love that. I’ve been doing that a lot lately– putting myself in the context of again being a designer and seeing what happens to the work. Does it change? Is it the same? Do people react differently? Generally it’s my show, a solo piece or exhibition. I’m so obsessed with creating the energy of the environment. I wanted that exercise; how would I still work with the energy in this room with all these other people whom I really grew to respect? It was so nice to travel with a crew of young designers.

Everyone deeply interpreted the theme in his or her own way. I was connected to 9/11 and 3/11. If you know my work, my answer to that piece was life and death, rebirth, resurrection, after life, past lives, the dream state, healing, and then I create the pieces a lot with my daughter. That’s what I’m working with, so it’s very easy for me to do a topic that’s on death or all of these things that I’m talking about to myself. I just found the contrast fascinating.

Could you describe the performance at New York New Work.

It is a replica of a few performances. The original piece took place in 1997 in Paris at Purple Institute called Sleepers. Five life-sized dolls and five models. You couldn’t tell who was real and who was not because they were sleeping on the hard cement floor for two hours. I made a silent film with Annette Aurell also called Sleepers. Recently in Portland, I recreated those dolls. They came back to life too because Bjarne Melgaard bought the originals and I made more for a piece he did in Paris. We figured out how to remake them and we kept going. I realised to recreate the whole Sleepers piece in Portland, but I added to the performance a dance set I made in Frankfurt, Germany at the Museum of Modern Art.

The show in Tokyo was a repeat of the original show in Paris, recreated in Portland, with a simultaneous mini-iteration at the Berlin Biennale because I love when things happen at the same time, to connect the energies. That is the piece I brought to Tokyo, but with two live girls, one doll, and a mix of original and new costumes. I included paper mobiles I’ve been making to hang in the restaurant for the Whitney show. It makes it more sensitive, beautiful, and I like that they are going some place. All these weird parts of different performances that will repeat or have repeated comes from fashion when I believed everything is season-less and nothing goes out of style. I felt if I always repeated patterns and styles it would prove this. Now I have clients who after twenty years tell me ‘I’m still wearing the same skirt’ and that I feel is my big accomplishment to myself. Fashion used to be truly season-to-season, but thankfully everything has changed. It used to be so rigid.

You are so disruptive of your own archive.

Yes! It all gets caught up and there may not be anything left, but things appear. People send me back pieces too. That’s what I mean—everyone is involved. People that are collectors build archives for me of Comme des Garçons, Chanel, Yohji, Valentino… people trust me to cut things up. I cut up my own archives as well. I’m doing it to say I love these designers and it is actually out of respect. You love an object so much that you love it to death. A dress is always in question and a piece will be reconstructed over and over.

When I reached out to speak to you about New York New Work and Tokyo, this special zine developed. What brought this about?

I get inspired and happy when I see work that means something. It’s not everyday, not at all. That’s the same that goes with collaborators, photographers, so I have a lot of these special kinds of relations in Tokyo and that is why I get so wired and my heart is so open with excitement. So much love and emotion is how I feel when I am there. There I have a lot of relationships for twenty years and over those twenty years there are newer ones I’ve built.

It’s a funny coincidence when you contacted me I was in the middle of all these collaboration tests. There are some newly graduated students, young textiles designers, and other young designers–sort of this core group that every time I’m in Japan we meet and they help me. This time we jumped into new ideas and spoke about a film. I was doing collaborations and tests with this photographer I met and I felt an interested fate of time.

How perfect.  

The performance pieces are a moment in time and they only really live if they’re documented in a documentation that’s very official, more than me documenting it. That’s what happened, we reenacted the performance for a whole day over, from morning till night. It was a three-day show so the second and third day I am there to meet the press and I was planning to keep it more of a still life, so it was a surprise third day of this performance piece that was recorded. It was not just a photographer recording the performance but a complete collaboration. Sheseido is such a great sponsor for me for these twenty years and Friday night I worked with their makeup team but Sunday I did the makeup myself, which is what I have been practicing in Japan when I go there, creating makeup myself so that it is its own canvas.

There’s something very special about Japan. I go there, I build new work, and then I come back here. It’s always been that way for me. It’s this portal I go into, traveling, but also this other studio and this other land in a way. I feel so lucky.

The zine acts as a recreation of the performance given for New York New Work but you actively don’t document things unless the documentation approaches you.  

I would have never documented it, but there were all the right moments. Meeting the photographer, you asking me at the right time, and then knowing that it has to be a full piece. I believe we are going to capture the energy on camera. It is very important to me­– how I work with the photographers. My whole archives for twenty years are based on this archive of photographers who are the most extraordinary and gifted people that I could be so fortunate to work with. Again, I felt I was there at the right time in the right place. How lucky am I to work with Mark Borthwick, Marcelo Krasilcic, Chris Moor, Terry Richardson, there’s giant names and everyone is so special. There’s just so many.

My last two films I made with Harry Hughes. When we met, we said it at the same time, we believed we met each other to make these films. For a year we traveled and worked intensely on these two films and it was like we had been working together our whole lives. His whole life is younger than my whole life but he is such a gifted young filmmaker. His editing is so advanced that I don’t even think he realises his gift. He did a lot of important documentation for the exhibits during that time. It’s a sense of trust and everyone to me becomes family. We will do a body of work and remain in contact, communicating based on love and trust. Everyone uses “community,” but I think family is more poignant.

I know you’ve worked with your model Chie in pervious works, such as at Maryam Nassir Zadeh in 2015.

Yes and an important museum show I had at Mito Tower that Nakako Hayashi curated. She’s been in a lot of things with me. I only work with people I feel intensely close with, people who I work with in the studio or performers who I work with for years and years. That’s what makes it special.

Considering the context of this group show with fashion brands, how do you feel your work intersects with fashion now?  

I hadn’t been to Tokyo in five years and there are a lot of really strong supporters for me there that, from the beginning, have been fine with the fact that I am half an artist half a designer. So, it doesn’t matter to them, if the work is in a giant gallery, museum, mall, or on the street. There’s no judgment. The way we view buildings, museums, and galleries versus the way it is in Japan is another incredible example of perception. That trickles down to these questions of ‘What is art?’ and ‘What is fashion?’ Hence, there are designers like Rei Kawakubo because it is more naturally in their culture and their history. I feel like I learned from their history and me getting to go to Tokyo for the last twenty years, since I was twenty-six or twenty-seven when I went for my first exhibitions; obviously this had such an enormous effect. When I go there I feel okay, while in this side of the world there’s more questions.

It’s interesting that geography roots the answer to that intersection.

Every time I am in Japan I try to meet with the designer of Written Afterwards, Yoshikazu Yamagata. He is literally half art half fashion. He worked for Rei and now opened his own school. He’s young, so incredible, and humble; the students who support me when I go to Tokyo are his. They’ll come with me and it’s a way I can be, in a very modern sense of teaching, more European. He started this very progressive school and we are always talking about how can we join more. It hit me that I am going to make a film with him. His work is outrageous; I don’t feel it would happen here!

I had been on hold with my next film because I hadn’t felt it yet, but when they come to me and I have to do them. I get the obsession and I just can’t stop because it’s a lot of work. This one will be shot half here half Tokyo.

My biggest projects are the Whitney Museum in April, the biennial opens in March but my special performance piece will be April. From there, I’ll have solo shows in London and New York, both in September, at Bridget Donahue and at Stuart Shave Modern Art. I’ll have that much time to work on the film, amongst other big installations.

You have a tenacity for constant production and constantly starting new projects.  

Yes and it is never finished.

Do you look for anything particular in your collaborators?

No, I don’t ever look for anything. When they appear, there is this feeling that is very powerful and I know I have to follow it, no matter what. I believe that we even wrote contracts with each other before we came here to make this certain body of work at a certain time. It is very much fate for me. I believe the work was already written; I’m not really doing it. It’s the cliché philosophy that there’s just a vehicle and it happens. It’s out of my hands ­– I don’t really feel it’s me doing it at all. It’s other people that I’m meant to meet at certain times and record this information, like alchemy or something more, from an older time.

There are spiritual elements to both your process and your work itself.

It’s all spiritualist work. More than spiritual, I choose the word spiritualist because when I study musicians that are spiritualist there are a hundred different ways you can do that. There’s gospel, Native American, or even some great rappers– it doesn’t have to come in a specific package. I love all of it from every religion to every historical way of chanting or prayer. I feel through art it is the same. It’s another medium and it can have the same ways to tap in.

How do you feel the vein of womanhood runs through your pieces and performances?

It’s my quiet way of promoting women. I feel that a way I can talk about how much I want to support women is through those performances. It’s all intended for beauty and love. However it looks on the outside, if there’s judgment or question, I’m okay. In the simple aspect it is just fantasy. Creating fantasy and what I see as beauty as how you create. It’s very childlike­–creating worlds. Sometimes for me the simplicity says a lot for the subversive and subliminal messages. There are men in the films but it’s very selected. It has to be someone so sensitive and there’s a spark. Someone who inspires me so much; through their style, how they live their life, what makes them different, or to me what makes them beautiful. Everything, all the costumes, is drawn from the performers. You don’t have to sing and dance, it can be a subtle movement or an exchange of words.

I know you are a professor at The Pratt Institute. Do you feel teaching interfaces with your own work?

It’s a question I come upon for myself. As I go on, I look at how I am a professor. I always want my teaching to be based in a more European style that I learned in the great trips I’ve taken, teaching at Dass Art in Amsterdam and a school in Frankfurt called The Städelschule School, where I costumed a Portikus production of Hamlet that changed my life. There the way you are a professor is so different from here. I try to mix the American version of teaching with, for example in Tokyo where teachers and students hang out, having a coffee or a beer. It’s mixing that with a little bit of the structure; it’s all improvisation and whatever comes to me, what I feel the students need and who they are and those that want to jump out of the system to have fun become a whole other friendship and dynamic of collaboration. I always say they are my teachers too. I am in the system playing that game, which was hard at first, but it has come to this really fun place. I see this powerful sense of commitment and passion through the students. This year I am only teaching Freshman Fashion Drawing, which has been so fun. I look at it more as an art practice, but I want the students and myself to be a fashion illustrator. As I sit and draw with them, I feel every week I am learning too. Every drawing I do I take it seriously– half of the work in the collages are coming from the class and the other half come from the days I spend with my daughter Lilac, with also me on my own. In Japan, I got to sit and draw on my own, but it doesn’t happen a lot. I am either with my students or with Lilac. My mother can paint perfectly as well. I feel it’s a constant exchange with family; students become family and friends become family in that way. It is very touching for me to teach. I feel so honoured.

It’s almost symbiotic.

That’s how I believe it should be. I’ve always had this utopian vision of my own school and deep-rooted new forms of teaching, but I realised going into the system and bringing this little by little is just as fulfilling. It took me a while to understand.

Artist: Susan Cianciolo

Subject: Chie Arakawa 

Shot by Lasse Kusk
Shot by Kusk