Martha Wilson, I Make Up the Image of My Perfection/I Make Up the Image of My Deformity, 1974/2008, color photographs, text, 19 x 25 in. [48.26 x 63.5 cm], edition of 4, Courtesy Martha Wilson and P•P•O•W, New York, © Martha WilsonWilson
Martha Wilson is a feminist American artist; she uses performance art to approach notions of self-representation. By using photography and video, her work plays with the codes of feminine representations in our contemporary society. Her humor allows her to question political subjects while embodying characters such as the presidents of the United States. She also is the director of the organization Franklin Furnace Archive which goal is to promote and help avant-gardes artists. This interview focuses on how feminism influenced her work throughout her career.
Ewa Giezek: Since 2021, your presence in the French art world has grown. You had your first solo exhibition in a French institution: Martha Wilson in Halifax. 1972-1974 (October 20, 2021-January 31, 2022), at the Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne. Could you tell us more about this show?
Martha Wilson: Back in the day, when I was living in Halifax during the 1970s, I thought that each of my works was very different. Then I looked back at those works during the show at the Centre Pompidou and I thought “Oh, it is all one work!” I realised that it was one exploration of the phenomenon of being a female in contemporary society. People liked the exhibition because they could identify with it; I had a lot of positive feedback. The curator, Marcella Lista, asked me to come and help her to install the show; she was concerned about the relationships of the works to each other. She wanted it to be clear for the public and she managed.
EG: At the same time you were staying in Paris, on a residency co-organised by the Cité Internationale des Arts and Art Explora. During your stay, you worked for your project called Generations of Feminism in France, for which you recorded interviews with different French feminist artists. What is the purpose of this work?
MW: The idea was to ask the same three questions to six generations of French women artists1:
– How did you become an artist?
– What is your relationship to feminism?
– Did trauma play any part in your development as an artist?
This last question is linked to my theory that we are artists and not psycho killers because we have an outlet through our art to get stuff out of our bodies and our souls. Basically, everybody had some trauma experiences. The question is: how do we then process them? Artists found the way to let trauma go outside of their body, to then look at it and examine it. For example, one of my pieces at the Centre Pompidou show was called Suicide: it was the representation of my fake suicide, a picture of me naked with ketchup on my stomach. This piece helped me to understand how I could deal with suicide when I first looked at the final result of my work from the outside.
Martha Wilson, New wrinkles on the subject, 2014, pigmented ink print on canson rag photographique, photograph by Michael Katchen, makeup by Melissa Roth, sheet: 24 x 16 in. [60.96 x 40.64 cm], framed: 25 ½ x 17 ½ in. [64.8 x 44.5 cm], 2 artist print, Courtesy Martha Wilson and P•P•O•W, New York, © Martha Wilson
EG: I heard that you have other projects in France soon?
MW: Yes, I will have an exhibition called Invisible at the FRAC in Marseille (1 July 2023-4 February 2024). This show will present all the works I have done about ageing. For example, one of them is called new wrinkles on the subject, it is a picture of me taken after a makeup artist emphasised all of my wrinkles. Ageing is a subject that makes people uncomfortable and women anxious. Now that I am an old lady, I have done even more stuff about this topic. The goal of art is to question things, so I question ageing: “Why do we have to dye our hair? Why do we have to use Botox? What is the problem with the normal process of ageing?” During my career, I created a lot of other works directly linked to the contingencies of my own appearance, like I Make Up the Image of My Perfection / I Make Up the Image of My Deformity(1974-2008). Through those images, I demonstrate to the public our worst fears and it shocks us because we are socially required to be perfect.
Martha Wilson, Martha Wilson as Barbara Bush, 2005, portrait by Dennis W. Ho, Courtesy Martha Wilson and P•P•O•W, New York, © Martha Wilson
EG: You also worked on your image in a totally different way. Instead of thinking about your own appearance, you realised performances in which you embody famous political personalities, such as Donald Trump or first ladies like Michelle Obama. What is the story of those political performances?
MW: I started performing with DISBAND, my music band of women artists. We were pretending to be the members of Ronald Reagan’s cabinet. Then DISBAND dispended and I started to perform alone. I did a performance as Ronald and then as Nancy Reagan in 1983. To prepare for my performance as Nancy, all I had to do was to read the papers because she would say the most average stuff and I would put it right in my script. When George H. W. Bush was elected, I performed as Barbara Bush and so then when George W. Bush was elected, I still had the suit and the wig to play Barbara so I came back to her but as a mother of a president. She was complaining about her son and it was so much fun to do. Every time, I tried to go into the consciousness of these characters to understand what made them tick, what would define who they were. But when Trump came along, I tried to go into his consciousness and see what was in there but it was quite empty. I usually have a political message that I want to get across. So my performance as Trump wasn’t so much about Trump but it was about Martha’s relationship to the political reality in the United States over the last fifty years.
Martha Wilson, Martha Does Donald, June 14, 2017, still from the performance for Art Rising at Trump Tower, New York, Courtesy Martha Wilson and P•P•O•W, New York, © Martha Wilson
EG: In those performances and more generally in most of your works, you give place great importance on humour. Why is this so important to laugh and to make your public laugh?
MW: One day, I realised that my father gave me my sense of humour. He was also the person who sexually abused me when I was seven years old. So it was a difficult situation. I didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that he had given me positive things. But when the feminist community appeared I understood that humour was a useful strategy. For example, when Guerrilla Girls dressed up with gorilla masks and used the names of dead women artists, it was a way to laugh at the absurd condition of women in the art world. We can remember their slogans like “How many women had one-person exhibitions at NYC museums last year? Guggenheim: 0, Metropolitan: 0, Modern: 1, Whitney: 0” (1985). Laughter allows us to talk to each other even if we don’t agree. Humour is also a kind of strategy to make life worth living.
EG: As we are talking about the Guerrilla Girls and the relationships between women artists, I would like to get back to your encounters with two important feminist figures from art history. First, your prickly encounter with Judy Chicago. What happened that day?
MW: In 1972 my boyfriend applied for a job in California. I went with him and so I booked an appointment with the feminist art workshop there, where Judy was a professor. I showed her my work and she didn’t like it. Then she asked me “What do you think of this work?” while she was pointing out walls covered by boobs and flowers painted all over by students. I thought it was horrible. She yelled at me: “Don’t you understand what we are doing here? We try to support young women.” And as a young artist who was starting her career, I just cried because I didn’t have any personal resilience or resources to know what to do in this circumstance. So, Judy Chicago made me cry.
EG: The other encounter I wanted to mention is more joyful. You met Lucy Lippard at your college in 1973. She is the one who affirmed that you were an artist and moreover, she is the person who taught you the term “feminist”. What was the impact of Lucy Lippard on your life and your work?
Martha Wilson, Breast Forms Permutated, 1972/2008, black and white photographs, text, 20 x 14 in. [50.8 x 35.6 cm], 1/3 artist print, Courtesy Martha Wilson and P•P•O•W, New York, © Martha Wilson
MW: Lucy changed my life. She was a visitor to Nova Scotia College of Art and Design at Halifax in 1973. I had created a book with images and text of my different works. She looked at everything and told me, “Yes, you are an artist. There are other women around North America and Europe who are doing this kind of identity feminist work. I will put you in a show.” She put me in a show and in the catalogue, I put Breast Forms Permutated as the image. Through this catalogue, I met Jacki Apple, who was living in Brooklyn. Lucy put me in a show at the A.I.R. Gallery and I discovered that in New York women were not hostile to each other as they kind of were in Halifax; they were supportive to each other. I decided to move to New York in 1974. Jacki helped me to found my organisation Franklin Furnace: she was the curator and I was the director. We were showing works of art produced by the downtown community which weren’t considered as valuable by the uptown community.
EG: You just mentioned the importance of support in sisterhood relationships: what would be your own definition of feminism today?
MW: I think that the three notions of race, class and sex are at the bottom of everything. So regarding this, my definition of feminism would be: “Women can identify with the condition of other women and other men from different races and classes. Reaching different possibilities is a right.”