What if Irma Vep was one of us? Multimedia artist Michelle Handelman is out to pull iconic film vixen Irma Vep out of her mysterious, screen-dwelling existence and into the therapist's office. It's not easy being a vamp, after all.
"Irma Vep, the last breath" is a multichannel video installation composed of two stories. One tells of Irma Vep, the original vamp, character from the 1915 Louis Feuillade film "Les Vampires" complaining to her therapist. The second is Musidora, the actress who played Vep who, it is rumored, ended her life working anonymously as a ticket vendor despite her earlier goddess status.
The piece stars queer performance artists Zackary Drucker and Flawless Sabrina, aligning the performative aspects of contemporary queerness with earlier vamp tactics. "Irma Vep" explores the relationship and power dynamics between an artist and her creation; in this case, the creation is Irma Vep.
Taking place at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, Handelman's exhibition takes over an overwhelming architectural space designed by none other than Zaha Hadid. The cinematic space combined with the physical space, according to the Museum, "allows space for anxious projections of desire on the void that is Irma Vep—a space between genders, between vamps of the silent era and the contemporary queer."
We reached out to Handelman to learn more about the project. Scroll down for more images.
How did you become interested in vamp culture?
When I say "vamp" I'm really referring to two things. There's the vamp from the silent era and then the contemporary vamp which crosses into drag and performative identity. As a kid I was really into gothic horror films. It started with this TV show called "Creature Features" I used to watch with my dad and brother. Then my brother and I would put white makeup all over our faces and pretend to be monsters, and we'd watch all these great horror films-- Frankenstein and Dracula and stuff. I just grew up loving horror films since I was five or six. I think I was always attracted to the monsters because of their outsider quality. I always felt like an outsider in every environment I have ever been in. There is something really sexy about them-- black and dark and dangerous and forbidden.
Were struck you aesthetically with these films at a young age?
I am really just a product of media like we all are. Television has a huge influence on all of my work. When I was a kid I was enamored with Batman. Everything is shot at a really sharp, slanted angle, and then comes Catwoman in these black latex pant suits. I always say that was my first latex fantasy-- not like it was a sex thing for me then, I just wanted to touch it and wear it and chew on it. I just found it all to be exquisitely beautiful because there is a certain sadness to it, a melancholy palette, and also this idea of power.
How do you envision 1920s vamps interacting with contemporary queer culture?
The vamps of the silent era had an outsider agency to them that fueled the narratives. They were outcasts, yet extremely powerful through their identity. Queer culture is relegated to the margins in our society, in fact, even criminalized in some states and many countries. Irma Vep is a criminal and this relationship between being an outsider both within and outside of queer culture is the connection, exploring what it's like to live life undercover. Even within the queer community I've often felt an outsider because I've always identified as pansexual. I don't really live in a binary existence in that way. In my artwork and my life, everything sort of bleeds into something else in a very organic way.
Do you feel like bisexuals are not welcome in queer communities?
I've always been a real solitary creature, like a panther or a cat. I like to roam around on my own. I spend a lot of time traveling very fluidly through a lot of different worlds. I have always resisted being pinned down to a single word definition; I feel it is reductive to subject anyone to a single word for their identity.
How did this particular project come to be?
I knew I had to do something with Irma Vep. I have pictures of her all around my room and office. My last piece dealt with "The Picture Of Dorian Gray," and I was really struck with how in the book when the painting comes to life, this inanimate object has its own power and agency, crossing time periods and existing in a parallel universe. I started to think about what would it be like if the character of Irma Vep, who has so much influence in the world with her image of this iconic vamp, was actually alive. This symbol of the cinematic vamp, this dark, aggressive woman-- if she were real, what would she talk to her therapist about?
How does this play out in the film?
I set up the piece so the only dialogue is Irma Vep on the couch talking to her therapist about things that are both specific to the film "Le Vampires" and also subsequently are specific to any woman's life. She talks about topics like how she has a hard time working with the other vampires or how she is always on the run, she cant keep a relationship together.
Did you research the film heavily for the project?
I ended up doing a lot of research about the actress who played her, Musidora, who actually went on to become one of the first female feature film directors. She produced and directed a dozen films in her lifetime. All of them were lost except for two. Myth has it that in her final days she was a ticket taker at the Cinematheque Francaise and no one knew the old woman who was selling tickets was really this famed old star of the silver screen. But it all started with this character. This character became her identity, became her doppleganger.
That does sound pretty Dorian Gray-like.
It makes you think about the artist and her creation, whether its a character you portray or a painting you make. The power relationship between an artist and her creation fascinates me; sometimes the artist has more power and vice versa.
How does the film interact with the Zaha Hadid architecture of the museum?
The look of my piece was very much inspired by the German Expressionists- particularly "Metropolis". And I love Zaha Hadid's architecture; I love being dominated by architecture. Feeling that power, as a human I feel so small, like just a little element in the world. You feel it in churches all the time; they are designed to elevate the concept of what you're there for. It blew me away; I just felt that that this museum was made for my piece.
What are communicate with this work?
Part of what I do is try to put the viewer off balance in some way. I am interested in creating a destabilizing experience where the viewer has to navigate the piece in an active way. I feel that people often approach art from a voyeuristic point of view, where they're just peering in on it. I just want to shake people up and have them question what is the function of art, what is the function of life and when they experience something that makes them uncomfortable they have to figure out why.
Scroll down for more images below and let us know your thoughts in the comments.
"Irma Vep, the last breath" by Michelle Handelman will run from September 20, 2013 until January 05, 2014 at Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in Michigan. at The Broad Museum in Michigan.