This is the second half of my interview with actress Elyse Poppers, who is the centerpiece of this summer's New York art world, presented as Natalie Wood, Snow White and That Girl, by the extraordinary artist Paul McCarthy.
Elizabeth Sobieski: You are now recognized as a work of art, several in fact. The gallerist at the 69th Street Hauser & Wirth told me that the anatomically correct prone Elyse or "That Girl Asleep" (Marlo Thomas' seminal series provides another pretty brunette American icon in the McCarthy repertoire), has already sold. Your exact external replica will be either in an important private collection or housed in a major museum (perhaps both) and enter the annals of art history, priced at hundreds of thousands of dollars. Was the concept of becoming a timeless work of art important to you prior to going through the arduous molding process?
Elyse Poppers: Oh no no! I love these pieces, they were so flawlessly executed by Paul, Kazuhiro Tsuji and his team but my interest was much more in the art that happens in the process than in the product. I am very interested in depictions of the nude throughout the history of art, how the body is portrayed by a male artist and then a moment where women artists begin to create nude self portraits, self-fashioning their subjectivity and subverting an unattainable ideal. 'That Girl' reveals the messy process of representation and also an effort to show all details of the body, not as an anonymous subject but as a contributor with agency. Making the piece was a constant dialog.
ES: I don't think there's anyone else, other than Paul himself, who has been as faithfully depicted. People are fascinated by the fabricating process as shown in the footage projected upstairs from the sculptures. Elyse, I was there the first time you were covered in blue goop (as opposed to Gwyneth goop) to form a body mold. I remember everyone in the McCarthy studio being concerned that you might feel claustrophobic holding still for many minutes while the cast was set, just your nostrils exposed. Paul and his crew were very considerate and I immediately saw that they perceived you as a collaborator and not just a model. How many times have you been wrapped in goop and plaster since then?
EP: I think I ended up doing around 10 castings total, not all full body but several head castings which was the hardest part.
ES: People gasped at the dental mold being made. Did special effects artist Kazuhiro Tsuji work with a dentist to learn this particular technique?
EP: I'm sure he did. He is exceptional with detail, he never stopped seeing ways to further perfect the piece.
ES: Lets talk about the bush! WS (White Snow) has one and TG (That Girl) is bare of hair. How was that decided?
EP: I had to wax for TG because of the molding process, so ultimately, the finished sculptures capture me in the actual process. The fact that there are multiple bodies and also that they mirror the video of me in process creates a time/space collapse experience for the viewer. This is process art so it was utilitarian that the hair was removed but then as an interesting side effect the hairless crotch references Duchamp's "Etante Donnes" and even Manet's "L'Origine du Monde," taking the exposure of the female body a step further. The hair does hide a woman's body, as opposed to a nude man who will be exposed, hair or not. That full exposure is something we see now in porn culture but almost never in art. And it is not the faceless "Etante Donnes" or "L'Origine Du Monde." The piece confronts the viewer in full form and gazes back.
ES: As in other McCarthy works, food plays a part. In the Walt and Snow cooking show scenes, you are covered with cake batter and nonpareils. Having dined with you on several occasions, I know you are quite the foodie. Did you lose your appetite after shooting this scene and the food scene with the dwarfs?
EP: Only because of the chicken. I have an irrational poultry phobia and the smell of it puts me off everything. For the gravy scene in REBEL they used chicken gravy. I begged for mushroom gravy but they couldn't get it in large enough quantities.
ES: The party scene also includes balloon dogs being used as sexual substitutes, balloon dog phalluses, balloon dog dildos. Paul recently showed a giant balloon dog at New York's Frieze Art Fair. I was just wondering if the name Jeff Koons ever came up while shooting the balloon dog orgy scene?
EP: When we started talking about scenes for WHITE SNOW, I described the children's parties I used to do as a party princess. I would twist various kinds of balloon animals for each child. In the context of an art piece, the balloon dog is a banal symbol of childhood and it's also just a beautiful object. It was interesting to Paul that Koons had taken such a ubiquitous object and heightened it to the scale of fine art and then we take the actual object into an entirely different context, furthering the conversation. The children's party scene with the dwarfs then becomes a reverse of Koons' elevating the balloon dog to a sublime object and instead it is defiled, both as an art object and a symbol of the American childhood.
ES: What surprised you about seeing the Elyse sculptures, viewing yourself from every possible angle?
EP: There was a brain flip sort of feeling in seeing myself from behind, the back of my neck, in person. It's a subtle enough detail that my brain recognized it as myself completely but then, wait a second, I am myself standing looking at it from a distance. It was a little out-of-body experience.
ES: Paul mentioned a desire to shoot more WS with animals next. Are you game? How about animatronics (another McCarthy specialty)?
EP: I am game! I trust him completely and anything we do is more fun than I could ever have imagined work could be.
ES: I took a final look at "That Girl Asleep" besides a man who exclaimed to me, "Isn't she beautiful? Isn't it beautiful?" I agreed. I then walked down Madison Avenue; the same man and his lady friend were in front of me. I heard the man say, "My place is two blocks from here." Did you know you have become an aphrodisiac?
EP: Haha! No but, I'm happy to hear that!
ES: I heard that your boyfriend watched the footage in the Armory for (seven) straight hours. That sounds like love!
EP: He did. He is a star.
WS, Park Avenue Armory, through August 4
REBEL DABBLE BABBLE (Hauser & Wirth, 511 West 18th Street, through July 26)
LIFE CAST (Hauser & Wirth, 32 East 69th St, through July 26)
(Elyse Poppers As Herself)