DETAIL/MARC-GUILLAUME © YOUNG MODEL SEEKS ARTISTS
“PORTRAIT” DEBORAH DE ROBERTIS
DEBORAH DE ROBERTIS, MIRROR OF ORIGIN, 2014
DAVID EVRARD, YOUNG MODEL SEEKS ARTISTS
SCREEN SHOT/ VIDEO PERFORMANCE “MEN OF ART”
YOUNG MODEL SEEKS ARTISTS, MARC-GUILLAUME
SCREEN SHOT “MIRROR OF ORIGIN”
FACIAL: DEBORAH DE ROBERTIS
A posing non-poser
An interview with performance artist Deborah de Robertis.
She was my best friend’s neighbour when growing up in Luxembourg, a year or two my “senior”. From what I can still recall, the things that united us were our common obsession for Michael Jackson, her readiness to give us access to her amazing wardrobe as well as her golden patience whilst teaching us how to operate make-up tools. She entered my life as unnoticed as she’d left it, without ever really entering nor leaving it. We continued to live our lives, me becoming an actress and freelance writer, her becoming whatever she’d become. There are people you lose track of until they’re on the news. This is what happened with Deborah de Robertis, a performance artist, who sat down unannounced under Courbet’s painting in the museum of Orsay on May 29 this year and spread her work, Mirror of Origin, to the world. By exposing her vagina to the randomly present visitors and museum staff, a gesture that quickly found its way to the media across the globe, Deborah challenged our position as spectator in an uncomfortably direct way. If experiencing a vagina in a painting has become so commonplace, almost numb in effect, why do we shy away from the living, real presence that is staring right back at us?
The following dialogue contains excerpts from our first discourse after almost two decades.
THE DIFFICULTY WITH OUR JOBS IS THAT BECAUSE OF THEIR PUBLIC CHARACTER, WHAT WE DO IS EASILY RESEARCHABLE. I AM VERY INTERESTED IN THE WAY WE EXPLAIN WHAT WE DO TO OUR PARENTS, WHAT WE DECIDE TO SHARE WITH THEM AND WHAT WE PREFER TO KEEP TO OURSELVES. SINCE YOUR WORK IS BODY-RELATED AND REVEALS SO MUCH OF IT, HOW MUCH OF WHAT YOU DO IN YOUR ART DO YOU ACTUALLY REVEAL TO YOUR PARENTS?
I’ve always talked to my parents about substantive questions of my work, about the issues that drive me, move me, and make me happy. But also about the things that make me angry or confuse me, for these are precisely the issues that make me use my body and my genitalia in my work. I show my parents little, but I tell them a lot. I explain them what I’m working on so they can have the emotional distance that is necessary in order to not get overwhelmed. I have overcome prudishness towards my own body, but I remain modest in front of the eyes of my parents, my dad’s eyes especially, in certain aspects of my work. My modesty comes from the fear of making them uncomfortable or imposing them an image of me that they don’t “need” to know of in the sense that, in my eyes, they will never be members of the audience, but always my parents. Moreover I would be embarrassed if they saw certain aspects of my video work where I am explicitly intimate. Regarding intimacy it’s important to know that the “real intimate me” has nothing to do with the exposure of my body. For me, true intimacy is about revealing oneself, one’s emotions. It’s about the truth of a directed gaze and about desire that, even when it is not necessarily explicit, is never acted or fake. The question of finding the balance between my family and this body that I expose to the world is indeed a sensitive one to me. There’s this fear of hurting the people that are close to me, because even if my statement is “I am all women”, they will always see me as “their sister”, “their cousin”, “their niece”, “their child”. My family might not come from a background that would allow them to understand contemporary art, but they are very sensitive and above all, they have a lot of love.
WHAT THINGS WOULD YOU SAY TO YOUR FRIENDS ABOUT YOUR WORK THAT YOU WOULD NOT TELL YOUR PARENTS?
Without ever concealing the fact that I use my body to express myself as an artist, I don’t tell my parents things that might worry them unnecessarily. I always talked to them about the backbone of my work, since it’s not nudity in itself that is the subject of my work, but the gaze that this nudity implies. This fundamental distinction is what allows one to understand my way of thinking and working and what I put at stake when I expose myself. This is precisely what I explained to the police when I was arrested at the Orsay museum for exhibitionism. However, I’ve always told and shown everything to my friends. I am surrounded by people who support me, guide me and help me protect myself when it’s necessary. They reassure me, watch my work, criticise me. And maybe without even knowing it, they help me face the moments where I sometimes feel like I am risking to lose a little bit of myself.
HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN WHAT YOU DO TO THE MEN OR LOVERS YOU MEET IN YOUR LIFE?
I always say what I do for a living. Sometimes I feel this sexual excitement from men not really understanding what I actually put at stake in my work. This excitement only becomes uncomfortable to me when the disagreement prevents any substantive discussion. Either way, I like to meet men in the art world -or my life in general- who, without being insensitive, go beyond any basic questions surrounding sex in my work. The men that appeal to me are men who ask me questions that I have difficulties to give answers to. Concerning the men that I loved and who loved me… I don’t know. I think they loved and fled me for the same reasons. The issue of privacy becomes complex in a loving relationship, since I give myself entirely to my work, not only my body, but also my vulnerability and my strength. My nudity in my art is a garment. To me, intimacy is the nudity of a woman that wakes up in the morning. I never show this woman to the public. I keep this nudity to myself.
I AM VERY INTERESTED IN THE VOCABULARY WE USE. DO YOU USE THE WORD “VAGINA” WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT THIS SPECIFIC PERFORMANCE?
No, I don’t use the word “vagina”, but rather “sex” because I find it more universal.
WHAT ARE YOUR PROJECTS OF THE PAST AND PRESENT?
It would be too long to explain them all, so I will describe four.
-Cherry on top, a film somewhere between documentary and fiction that I shot in New York and that was inspired by the Seduction Community.
I filmed men by receiving them in a hotel room right after they’d taken a seminar in the art of seduction. The film is based on a founding principle: “The moment I give you my camera, you become the director”. Although it’s a film that plays with domination and submission fantasy codes via the voyeuristic framework of the camera, it mainly speaks of the gaze directed at men. It shows modesty and desire and reveals the different faces of male vulnerability that I feel virile and that stimulate and move me in art as well as life.
-Les hommes de l’art (Men of art), where I question the assumed hierarchic system between the artist and the actors of the contemporary art market. Naked and made bare, I point my camera to the eyes of these men who, by the very definition of their profession, sell, criticise and are often confronted by female nudes in art. As in all my films, I try to touch upon some aspect that I feel is unrepresented in what I perceive as being part of a certain male virility.
- Young model seeks artists is a video performance where I reverse the roles between the model (me) and the artists (10 men). The model comes out of her immobility in order to expose her gaze towards the men who make her pose.
- I continue to work on photographs of the Memory of Origin series that I incarnate in order to give a perspective towards the world, the origin of the world by Gustave Courbet, by making it be reborn in our contemporary world. It’s a never-ending project.
WHAT ARE YOUR AIMS IN YOUR WORK?
My work speaks of a “hole”, of a missing gaze. I take the place of Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World not because I think that the world was born through a woman, but to precisely question this point of view in female representation. There is nothing more to be revealed in the overexposure of sex in our contemporary world aside from this gaze. This gaze of the painter’s model, of all these female models, that are exposed in art, from virgins to whores. It’s my vision of a world where great masters are being stared back by them in return. Through a series of pictures titled Memory of Origin, I offer an inverted mirror of Courbet’s painting in my approach, that reminds us that the story is told both ways, from both perspectives.
IS THERE A GENERAL SUBJECT THAT ALL YOUR PROJECTS AND PERFORMANCES HAVE IN COMMON?
Yes, men. They are my muses, my models, my subjects, my masters, my students, my collaborators and objects of my desire.
I WONDER IF YOU SOMETIMES PURPOSELY TRY TO TURN DOWN YOUR SEDUCTIVE AND SEXY SIDE IN MEETINGS, PUBLIC OR JOB-RELATED EVENTS OR GATHERINGS IN ORDER TO SOMEHOW “PROVE” YOUR STRENGTH AND INTELLECT. DO YOU COUNTERBALANCE THE NUDITY AND THE SEDUCTIVENESS IN YOUR WORK IN ANY WAY?
No. I refuse to prevent myself from being who I am. Knowing that every woman is unique, I refuse to have to enter a thought system that would consist of saying that exposure of female nudity and intellect are contradictory. This is also the requirement I have towards men that I film, men that I hire as photographers or editors and men that I meet in art circles for professional reasons. That’s why I don’t change anything, not even the playful side of me that could be disadvantageous to me in the sense that it could me misinterpreted as a kind of lightness that would be inconsistent with the uncompromising firmness that I have in my work. Sometimes, like before posing for instance, I’m frightened and I seek refuge, but what seems to escape them is that I never look for a master because I never let go, not even in the biggest moments of vulnerability, of the full mastery of my work. I might be afraid and nervous before exposing myself, but once I open my thighs, the fear is gone and I feel in exactly the right place.
IN WHICH WAYS WOULD YOU LIKE TO GROW, EVOLVE?
There are two issues that interest me in the subjects of my current and future work: rules and faith. I like to question the rule that is imposed by society and the rule of our universal origins. This universal rule raises questions of freedom of expression that I put forward every time I pose. Faith on the other hand, not in the sense of religion but in this disembodied sense, becomes more and more important in my work, which in the end is not a questioning of flesh itself, but a universal questioning of the mystery of our origins. That’s the reason my performance took place on the 29th of May in the museum of Orsay, on Ascension Day. Instinctively, as I always let myself be guided by the force of my instincts in the most natural way, I spread my genitals and by doing so I referred to the goddesses called Sheela Na Gig, female carvings displaying their open vaginas, the goddess mothers, almost Virgin Maries.
HAVE YOU BEEN THINKING ABOUT MOTHERHOOD? IF SO, DO YOU SEE YOURSELF EXPOSING YOUR PREGNANT BODY IN ITS FULL OR PARTIAL NUDITY?
Yes. Motherhood is already at the centre of my work today to the extent that I chose the pose in the origin of the world. It’s in this particular pose that women give and receive life inside themselves.
THERE IS ALWAYS THIS BALANCE THAT ONE TRIES TO FIND IN A RELATIONSHIP: STAYING TRUE TO ONESELF AND THE WORK THAT YOU HAVE DONE BEFORE MEETING YOUR PARTNER AND COMPROMISING IT WITH WHAT MAKES YOUR PARTNER FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE. WOULD YOU STOP INVOLVING YOUR NAKED BODY OR YOUR VAGINA IN YOUR WORK IF YOUR PARTNER ASKED YOU TO?
It’s important for me that the person I love wouldn’t love me if I was a different woman.
DO YOU LOVE SOMEONE AT THE MOMENT?
Yes, I love a man, an artist, his name is Ariles. I don’t know if he loves me.
FINALLY, SINCE IT WAS OUR FIRST CONTACT AFTER ALL THESE YEARS, WHAT DID IT DO TO YOU TO BE INTERVIEWED BY ME?
Initially I was frightened by the intimacy of your questions, since they brought me to a place I don’t usually show in public. At first I thought I would not be able to answer to some of them, I felt a certain violence and resistance rising in me before finally being able to perceive the intensity and the depth of your vision that tries, it seems to me, to bring back this part of humanity that I try to keep to myself out of protection, but that you seem to still know from our childhood. These moments where we had carefree fun pretending to be women.