This Delicate Monster Becomes Irma Vep: An Interview with Michelle Handelman

This Delicate Monster Becomes Irma Vep: An Interview with Michelle Handelman
By Evelin Stermitz, December 2013.

In a far-reaching practice that encompasses video, performance, photography and public art, 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, compulsive desire and narcissism, beauty and the grotesque, through a queer lens. Handelman’s work reveals the artifice of contemporary culture while simultaneously co-opting many of its deceptions to her own advantage. She is a Guggenheim Fellow and has received grants from New York State Council on the Arts, NYFA, The MAP Fund of Creative Capital among many others. Her work has shown at the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Institute of Contemporary Art, London; PARTICIPANT INC, New York; American Film Institute, Los Angeles; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and MIT List Visual Arts Center. She is an associate professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York City, and is currently developing their new Film & Media program. Her latest project Irma Vep, The Last Breath is now on exhibit at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, USA.
Michelle Handelman’s works on Vimeo

Evelin Stermitz: Your last few projects have been based in historic texts. Dorian a Cinematic Perfume (2009/12) was based on Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1890); This Delicate Monster (2004/07) was based on Charles Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal” (1857) and now Irma Vep, The Last Breath (2013) is working from Louis Feuillade’s film “Les Vampires” (1915). What is it that draws you to these texts and how do you approach turning them into contemporary art works?

Michelle Handelman: 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. In the words of Alan Watts, “There’s no need to rule the universe because you’re doing it already.”

E. St.: How does your recent project Irma Vep, the Last Breath parallel with your own life? You’ve spoken about how “Irma Vep, the Last Breath” examines lives lived “undercover”. Could you elaborate more on this? What do you mean by “undercover”?

M. H.: We all live undercover to some degree, but some of us are doing it more consciously. Irma Vep is a criminal in the film “Les Vampires” …it’s actually a tale of the working class vs. the ruling class and Irma Vep is part of a gang of jewel thieves. She’s leading the charge of self-actualization through disguise. At first I originally became obsessed with her character because I’ve always loved a woman in a black cat suit. Irma spends much of the film scaling rooftops and generally slinking around while cloaked in this black catsuit. She’s really the prototype catwoman. But as I started to work on the project and dig deeper…I really tried to figure out why I was so attracted to her….I realized it was because in a way, I was Irma Vep. I had learned how to live life undercover and be a criminal at a very young age. During the 70s when I was about ten years old my parents split up and my father moved to Los Angeles and ran a massage parlor while also dealing all sorts of drugs. From the age of ten I was lying to my friends, mother, brothers…I learned how to “secret” and how to pretend to be something other than the truth. I cast Los Angles-based artist Zackary Drucker as Irma Vep and Jack Doroshow aka Flawless Sabrina as Musidora, the real-life actress who portrayed Irma Vep. As a trans woman Zackary has lived half her life undercover as the wrong gender, and now is living her life undercover as the right gender. Jack grew up a gay drag queen during the 1940s/50s and knows a thing or two about living undercover, both as protection and as a way of life. The outlaw seeks absolute freedom, which goes against our normative training.


E. St.: Irma Vep, The Last Breath is currently on view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum. How did this come about and how have you worked with the site in this piece?

M. H.: The executive director of the Broad, Michael Rush, has been a huge supporter of my work over the years and when he invited me to premiere this piece 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 is like a German expressionist spaceship. All of the walls and doorways are slanted, the galleries are built with acute angles, the whole space is working against gravity. It’s full of possibility. And it was perfect for this piece because the look of Irma Vep, The Last Breath is inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – totally simpatico with the design of the museum. There’s two architectural spaces in Irma Vep, The Last Breath, 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 my piece is in it’s the same shape! Synchronicity. All of the projections are angled in some way to add to the impending doom of the piece. I feel very lucky to have this opportunity to premiere at such an incredible museum.

Images from the installation can be seen at this link

E. St.: When going back in time, how do you view your early artistic experiences, what has drawn you into the arts, what has changed for you?

M. H.: Growing up in Chicago I remember going to the Art Institute as a kid in the late 60s and seeing an exhibition on Pop art which totally blew open my imagination. Experiencing the work of the Chicago Imagists and their sub-group The Hairy Who totally inspired me. Then in 1967 my parents took the whole family to Expo 67 in Montreal and it was the first time I saw a geodesic dome and I vividly remember this pop art Volkswagen beetle complete with false eyelashes on the headlights! So glam! Color, irreverence, sex and fun drew me into the arts, and as I became older tragedy set in…and a heavy, dark exploration of physical and psychic pain became necessary, meaningful.

E. St.: When did you decide to go to art school, and how did you experience this time? When did you decide to pursue teaching?

M. H.: I ended up at art school more by accident than anything. Originally when I went to college I thought I would be a civil rights attorney, but I learned very quickly that if I were to become a lawyer I would be living a life of anger and frustration – anger at the corruption that pervades our legal system and frustrated by most people’s inability to learn from their mistakes. So after dropping out of Hampshire College, and traveling around Europe I went back home to Chicago. I thought about studying architecture at the University of Chicago but it was too late for that so I ended up at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago because I didn’t know what else to do. I studied photography there but dropped out after two years. Quite honestly I just didn’t buy into institutional learning. I was anti. It’s totally ironic that I’ve ended up a college professor because I spent a great amount of energy raging against the institution and it’s rote models of information processing. My first teaching position fell into my lap after the success of my documentary BloodSisters when Tony Labat, a great artist and chair of the New Genres department, offered me a class at the San Francisco Art Institute. It’s been a part of my life ever since. I’ve taught at the San Francisco Art Institute, CCA, Massachusetts College of Art, and now I’m starting a new film program at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. I try to change what I can from the inside now.

E. St.: How has your own work evolved over time?

M. H.: 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, 70s feminist art 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. I’ve always found it difficult to say no, whether to pleasure or materials. With every project I keep challenging myself to do or use something new, and over time I’ve discovered a way to incorporate video, photography and performance into each project.

E. St.: How do you view your work conceptually?

M. H.: Conceptually 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.

E. St.: Since you also created single-channel film works as well as multichannel installations, how would you define the differences between these ways of exhibiting? Also, is the process of creation different in each case?

M. H.: I find single-channel work is often limiting in its ability to stimulate me, yet it’s the easiest way to directly communicate something to a viewer. Multichannel work gets me much more excited…the endless possibility of image combinations, treating the walls as a tabula rasa, but it’s much more difficult to convey a single idea as it can be very distracting for the viewer. This is something I struggle with more and more, as I love the experience of being enveloped by moving images and sound, yet as I get further invested in narrative I see the limitations of split focus to direct receivership. Confusion works against storytelling.
For me it takes the same amount of time to develop, shoot and edit basically any kind of project of the same length. I tend to be very slow, letting ideas percolate for years, once production starts I usually shoot of a couple of years and then it takes another year to edit. Editing is like torture for me, and especially with the multichannel works as so much of the structure is created right there in the edit. So there’s lots of experimenting, lots of versions–the blessing and the curse of digital editing. But the worst part is making a decision of what to use. I hate making that final decision. I want to use them ALL!

E. St.: You created the documentary film BloodSisters in 1995 with a running time of 75 minutes, what purpose lead you to create this intense project?

M. H.: I made BloodSisters in in the mid-90s when I was living in San Francisco. I never thought of myself as a documentary filmmaker, I had no idea of how to make a documentary, so I just dove right in. It all started because my best friend at the time Scott Shatsky, now a producer for reality television, was living with two women who were a big part of the leatherdyke scene. Scott was into the scene too, he worked at the renowned piercing salon The Gauntlet. At that time San Francisco was the nexus for all things sex and art and I was involved in a lot of different literary, art, performance scenes that were all deeply committed to mining the sex industry as material for life and art. Skeeter and Jaime, the women who lived with Scott, invited me to come to the International Ms. Leather Contest that they were performing at, and so I went and I was totally blown away. Not only was this a wild, sexy, well-produced event but it was used as a radical consciousness raising event and a fundraising platform for AIDS and women’s health issues. I thought “how smart! To raise all this money AND get your sexual needs met at the same time!”. That night I know I had to make a documentary on this scene. The leather community has always been the dirty little secret of the gay community, banned from marching in parades, outcasts even within a community of outcasts, the freaks of the freaks. I wanted to let the world know how fiercely intelligent these women were, and how much we owed to their bravery. As these women stood up against systems of sexual oppression they broke new territory for how one could be in this world. This was the start of the gender radical movement. I spent three years making the film and toured around the world with it for another three years. It changed my life and my approach to art-making.

E. St.: How did this experience change your approach to art-making?

M. H.: Well the film got a lot of attention and soon people were inviting me to speak on panels and write articles. It was the beginning of my teaching career. But most importantly it taught me about professionalism and the payoff when one commits oneself fully. And I mean the internal payoff, the feeling of achievement that gives meaning to one’s life and work. Previous to this I was serious about being an artist, but this made me more serious. There was no turning back. This piece went more places than any other thing I had created and I experienced first-hand how one tiny film could communicate with so many people around the world. I fully understood the power of art and being engaged with a community of artists and critical thinkers. It also made me see how following one’s passion is the only way to be an artist. Not that I was ever shy about following my dreams, but with my art I always had some resistance underneath, a questioning of whether things were good enough, whether or not they were worthwhile, and this showed me that there was no longer any room to doubt. After BloodSisters had it’s run I packed up and moved to New York.

E. St.: What did you start working on when you moved to New York?

M. H.: I started to go back in the studio and work in the same way I had been working before moving San Francisco – just me and the camera alone in the studio creating these phantasmagoric scenarios. Between 1998-2004 I performed in front of my camera, sometimes in the studio, sometimes live, inhabiting costumes and gestures inspired by myths, fairy tables and anime.


My favorite projects from this time was the Cannibal Garden series (1998-2000) which included large scale photographs of feathers in the guise of sex toys and a series of video loops


and the public installation I did for the DUMBO Arts Festival.


Somewhere around 2004 I started developing ideas that were more involved and envisioning roles for many performers. It’s also when I started to think about my subject matter in a more specific way and address very directly the historic works that have been my bedrock of inspiration.

E. St.: That’s around the time you created the This Delicate Monster project, right?

M. H.: Yes. I’ve always created work that was very open-ended, but I was realizing there were so many references that were important to me, and many of the viewers were missing it. So I thought about ways I could directly deal with one or two of these works that meant so much to me, things that taught me about ways to exist in this world, that I knew others had been influenced by as well. I wanted more of a connection with my viewer. So the first piece I did was This Delicate Monster, based on Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal


and then followed that with Dorian, A Cinematic Perfume based on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.


Both of these pieces marked a huge shift for me in terms of content and process. I was no longer in front of the camera, and I was working with a cast and crew of incredibly talented people. Meeting my cinematographer Ed David completely changed my work. I owe him so much.

E. St.: Since the art world is highly gendered, have you had any experiences in particular with regards to being a female artist?

M. H.: There have certainly been times when men in positions of power have overtly hit on me and when I refused to submit, opportunities quickly disappeared. But the deeper stuff that is more intrinsic to my position in the art world, comes from the early days in San Francisco when I was coming out as a serious artist. During the late 80s while I was in San Francisco I became part of the small avant-garde film world that was, and still is, run by and for white, heterosexual males. At that time within that world Carolee Schneemann was the only woman whose work was allowed to assume a position of importance while dealing with explicit sexuality. Abigail Child’s work was as well, but since she was a lesbian it didn’t upset that hetero power structure. I found great resistance to my work and in fact, resistance to my entire being as a pansexual creature who didn’t identify as either gay or straight. Luckily for me, on the other side of the country MIX, The New York Experimental Gay Film Festival was being formed by Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman. Through them and Jurgen Bruning (now Bruce LaBruce’s producer) I started showing my work there. The queer community was not afraid of sexuality, in fact celebrated it, so I knew I found my home. MIX was ahead of their time, and it was the start of queerness being something greater than a binary gay or lesbian identity.

E. St.: What is ultimately your aspiration for your intense and broad work?

M. H.: I want to make work that blows people away. Work that gets inside a person and resides there forever. I remember being in art school 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.