featuring ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE
photography by COLIN DODGSON
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
style by ERIN MEEHAN
all artwork ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE, courtesy of the artist and nicodim gallery
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, your great show in Los Angeles gave me a feeling of freedom and beauty, celebrating a fearless expression of yourself in the middle of a dark period of social distancing and restriction. You offer your body as isolated sculptures, which is what made me think about you in relation to this concept of the “island.”
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — I was thinking about it, too, when you brought up the island — because it’s an orgy, but it involves only one person. So, there’s something very island-like about that. In making them, I’m really interested in the power that comes from being connected to one’s own very specific desires in all their complexity.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How so?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Like, what are my desires outside of all the judgment and oppression of desire itself? Sometimes, the answers to this question have an overwhelming depth and kink. But also, it’s almost impossible to think that way, right? Because we aren’t islands, although I’m glad you thought about that with them — because I feel they kind of have their own center of gravity. They are like islands of desire, which is possibly a powerful idea, but also possibly a very lonely one.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But we are all alone in our desire, right?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Yeah, maybe. When I think about desire, our body, our island, or whatever we are, we have this very distinct beginning and end, right? We’re born, and we die, and I think artists and all people want to have some kind of eternalness, and maybe desire itself is a yearning for continuity. In most of life, our beginning and our end are very defined, but sometimes in sex when you’re with another person or with several other people, there are moments when these boundaries are more blurred. And if, for example, this sex also involves creating a child, well then, where one ends and where one begins become even less distinct. But maybe that’s why this orgy is different — because the dissolving of boundaries is occurring within one body, expressed through multiple materials.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s an orgy of isolation and seduction, at the same time.
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Yeah.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did visitors react to your show?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — It’s interesting: you mentioned fear before, and I always want art to feel free. To me, this is the whole thing, right? Yet I have tons of fear. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs] Fear of what?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — I’m probably one of the most scared people on the planet, and I also love to scare myself. So, before the show began, of course, I was terrified. I thought that, for sure, it would be attacked. Because the work walks a line, and I’m coming from a specific place, but it’s not necessarily what you might think when you see it. I had every argument ready to go. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, what happened?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — I was so surprised: people didn’t want to fight. There was so much love, and they kept coming back to visit. They saw it like it was sacred. And that can be very difficult — to create a sacred sexual space. I think that’s why I was ready to fight.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, sculpture can be a fantastic medium for emotion. Were you afraid of being attacked for objectifying women’s bodies?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — I don’t see the work as objectifying, but it is very revealing. It’s part of a larger piece called Orgy for 10 People in One Body. There will be 10 sculptures in the full orgy, but this first show had the first six of them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What was it like for you to pose naked for your own work?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — You know, when you take off your clothes, it’s quite intense. It’s almost like a death. I read this thing recently — it was something along the lines that obscenity is the feeling we get when we see we don’t have self-possession, fixed identities. We’re not essential. And somehow, when you take off your clothes, you’re kind of letting go of your identity, and you’re becoming something vulnerable almost to the point of obscenity, in the way that you aren’t fixed.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I guess when you put yourself in a sculpture, you offer yourself to the gaze of everyone.
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Yes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And some reactions can be very positive, loving. Some can be very negative, even aggressive, toward the freedom of the artist.
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — It’s true. It’s funny, there’s something I feel very strongly about — and maybe I’m alone here — but I feel that a lot of art today is about being right, not about being free. And I’m not interested in being right, at all. To me, this is not a concern of art.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re willing to take the risk of doing what you feel is right.
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Yeah. And a lot of times, it’s really wrong. Like, all the time. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — Already, using the word “orgy” is wrong. I mean, I haven’t heard the word “orgy” in art since maybe Yayoi Kusama. But with you, the big difference is that your orgy is with yourself. And by using this word, you connect your work with the sexual liberation movement of the ’60s, which was a moment of idealism. And now, 60 years on, how do you position yourself in this weird situation, where we can’t put a nipple on Instagram, and, at the same time, a fantastic transgender sexual revolution is under way, which opens up possibilities?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Oh, absolutely. So many possibilities!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your work seems more to raise questions than give answers. Because there’s something of the ’70s freedom, but it’s also totally… I wouldn’t say narcissistic, but maybe solipsistic.
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Yes. I think that has something to do with what you mentioned earlier, about the gaze. I’m very interested in the gaze. Sometimes, I stare at one painting for weeks on end. It helps me to self-regulate. It’s like, sometimes, I experience my body as a big eyeball, you know? And there are so many questions around the male gaze and the female gaze. I’m not interested in criminalizing any gaze, as I, myself, am a serial gazer. However, with these works, I wanted to create something that was not in response to the male gaze. These works are from a matriarchal, mythological, and internal lineage. They’re coming from the gaze that emanates from inside the body and are less concerned with the gaze that looks onto the body. I’ve always been obsessed with nude sculptures. There are several that I visit religiously, but since I was a child, I have been confused about why the female nudes were almost always made from the experience of someone gazing onto the nude, not from the experience of someone gazing out from inside the nude body. There seemed to be a gap in that particular perspective.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I like the delicate way you use mythological evocations. For example, with this deer sculpture of your body. Mythology is one of the first places where the sexuality of animals and humans is not totally disconnected.
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — It’s interesting that you bring this up. The orgy has a mythological origin story. Orgy for 10 People in One Body No. 1, which is the piece with the saxophone, is a recreation of the “Leda and the Swan” myth. You know the story, right? Zeus comes down as a swan and either rapes or seduces Leda, depending on the telling. And then she lays two eggs, and from one, Helen of Troy hatches. It’s one of the few erotic stories that gets told again and again — I think partially because you don’t see a man, you see a swan, so this is somehow more acceptable to our minds. So, in the first piece, the saxophone represents the swan, but the saxophone is also a phallus. She takes the power symbolized in the phallus and integrates it into her own power. It’s a retell.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your sculpture questions what women’s sexuality is today. How do you see it today? Because it’s definitely changed, right? Even very recently, in the past five or 10 years. Definitely. For both women and men, in fact. We’re all changing sexually.
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Definitely. This is such a huge shift. And when we think of it in terms of women’s power, it’s so interesting. I think my particular connection to this is maybe a little different. Before I made this work, when I was a teenager, my body developed in a way that was both masculine and feminine. I had some surgery done, and it was a traumatic thing for me. I kind of closed down my body after that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you define yourself as having any specific gender?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — In this moment, I see myself as a woman, and I’m really celebrating the femme part of my being, but it might be very different in a few years. I’ve noticed that my relationship to gender has continued to subtly shift throughout my life, and I don’t imagine it becoming fixed anytime soon. But I do think that’s one thing that’s very exciting about this moment in time. My body had been like a blur most of my life, and I did a lot of work around this. I only really saw my body for the first time when I was 36 years old.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because you were intersex before?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Not intersex, very much female, but I had one breast, and both sides of my body were quite different. I had a lot of hormonal stuff and have struggled around ideas of normalcy in that area.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it difficult when you were young?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — As a teenager, those kinds of things can feel really big. And now, I’m so happy to see the teenagers are like, “Fuck y’all.” Who gives a shit about normalcy? I couldn’t give two shits now. So, I know that was not an answer to your question about how women now see sexuality, but mine is a specific experience, and, for me, it’s about acceptance. It’s an acceptance of multitudes, of otherness or islandness, and how quickly acceptance breeds eroticism, and how eroticism can be a deep source of power and information within our lives.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a new beginning for sexuality. There’s a new consciousness for diversity.
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — That’s very much what the deer is about. I wanted to make her feel so real that she could almost get up and trot around, this feeling of being simultaneously one thing and another, at once … and of being transhuman. That you could be something completely different, and that it could be sexy and beautiful and exciting and completely wrong, you know, all together. So, yeah, I do think we’re at a moment where there can be more acceptance of diverse sexualities, or more understanding about the true expansive nature of sexuality itself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What about the sculpture with the candle protruding from your vagina: is it a sign of hope? Is it like a little church?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Yeah. That interpretation makes me really happy. When the orgy first happened, my family’s house burned down. And this piece is about that, too. My great-grandmother was a North African singer, and we had all her records…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Really? Where was she from?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — We’re from Tunisia. Ancient Jews. She was very special. She sang Andalusian classical music. And we lost all her records, her voice. My grandmother was gay and living in Tunisia, and she ran away from her husband. She was in an arranged marriage at 21, and she moved to Paris. And she wrote erotic plays, which we also lost in the fire. And then, she actually married both a man and a woman. So, I think I’m also working through some of that in the orgy…
OLIVIER ZAHM — She married both a man and a woman! Incredible!
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Yes, it was a ménage à trois, and then my mom was born from this. My mom’s an artist, too, and she lost her studio and all of her writing and drawings…
OLIVIER ZAHM — In the fire, in California?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Yes, in November 2017. And then my sister was pregnant. She was a month away from having her child at the house. So, this was, of course…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Traumatic.
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — So much of what was lost in the house changed my relationship to objects and the power they hold. It also changed my idea of the body because all that was left of our history was what we hold in our bodies. So, the piece is about that. And, the next month, my sister did have a child, and that was one of the poses — it’s a sexual pose, but it’s also a birth pose. I was with her the whole time for a lot of it. But also, this idea of how women keep the flame alive, lighting the candles every Friday night, keep the fire going, keep the spirit going. So, that’s also a part of it. Then, in terms of how people responded, I first showed that piece in an art fair on a hotel bed. And what was so beautiful is all these women came and lit the candles. Like, they were in a procession, and, without me doing anything, a whole performance was made out of it from all of these people lighting the candles, and that was really hopeful.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you come from a family of women artists.
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Yes. And my sister’s a dancer. They’re all artists. I think this is why it maybe took a little while for me. I didn’t want to be on this path that so often is full of so much pain. [Laughs] I really tried to act against it… And maybe that’s the same with the normalization around sexuality. Like, I shut down my sexuality and the part of myself that is an artist, let it lay dormant for a while. But in the end, it got tired of sleeping.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, how do you see this unconscious transmission of women’s freedom? Because from your great-grandmother to your grandmother to your mother, it’s in your blood: this ability to express yourself as a woman with no fear.
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — It’s totally incredible. And, you know, both my great-grandmother and my grandmother suffered a lot. And my mom is just absolutely astounding, super prolific. But yeah, they’re with me all the time. Even with the orgy or this island idea with the body, I’m never alone. They’re always real close, you know.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why do you always cut the heads off your bodies? Is it to make them more universal?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Well, one of my favorite things about the show was how much people saw themselves in the bodies and the sculptures — men, women, all across the spectrum. People saw themselves in the work, and that made me so happy. And losing the head keeps it abstract and open and symbolic. But, for me, it was a little different. There was this idea that without a head, the body becomes quite monumental, right? So, that was really interesting to me. But also, there’s this thing that happens in sex, and I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, but there’s that moment where you lose your head, and it’s … ecstasy. Right? So, it was a lot about ecstasy, for me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you optimistic about art? Do you think that art and what you do can change people, besides giving them some emotion?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — For me, it’s the only way to survive. Without it, there’s zero hope. Absolutely zero. I mean, imagine the world right now without any art. I’m dead. I’m dead yesterday. It’s the thing that keeps me going.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Not only your practice, but art in general, movies, books, right?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Oh, yes, of course. And it allows us to be in communication. During the quarantine, we weren’t able to go to museums here in LA, as you know, so that was really hard. But you get to communicate with the ancients through their art. Even the deer — I listened almost every day to this protective prayer called “The Deer’s Cry,” which Saint Patrick wrote in the fourth century. And without that song, there’s no way for us to connect to that other time. Like, life can be so bleak — how do you maintain hope without being connected to the hope that humans have passed on throughout our history, the hope that has gotten us through times even darker than this one? You know what I mean?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Art doesn’t necessarily change people, but it makes them travel through times and different cultures and experiences.
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — I mean, it changed me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Like, you know when you love someone so much, you can’t imagine yourself or your life without them? It’s the same with art. And pretty much everyone I know in love would be a completely different thing without it. It’s how we connect. So, I do think it can change you. It necessarily changes you and your relationship to everyone around you. It strengthens the bonds. I have a lot of belief in art — maybe I’m naive.
OLIVIER ZAHM — No, I’m happy to hear that because this issue of Purple is about the perspective today: what can we do that could be a new beginning? Art has been with us since forever, and we realize how important it is today.
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Yes, it feels more important than ever. But on this theme of how we go forward, you know the work I do in my day job: I work with my partner on artificial intelligence, and, for me, although we’re experiencing a new beginning, I think it’s very clear to us that we’re also at an end… My favorite sculpture of all time is called the Ain Sakhri Lovers. It was made 11,000 years ago, at a moment not unlike our own, when the climate suddenly changed, and humans had to find new ways to survive. They began farming, domesticating plants and animals, domesticating themselves, and then making depictions of these selves, in that moment, eternally embraced. It is considered to be the first erotic art piece. And I think we’re in a similar moment now. Like, it’s a new beginning, but it’s also an end. The body as we know it, sexuality as we know it, stability as we know it…We have to become something else, right?
OLIVIER ZAHM — We are becoming.
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — The deer is becoming something else, but we are also becoming something else. We are merging with artificial intelligence and with technology, and this is possibly one of the reasons why we aren’t having as many children and maybe one of the reasons why we all feel so scared. And there are many things going on there. And I feel like this work I am making, it is like a memory.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s like a memory for times past?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Yeah. It’s like a memory of humanity up until this point, when the human experience has been so dependent on sensation and the corporeal. But this kind of connection to the body already feels like a memory. You know what I mean?
OLIVIER ZAHM — I do, but your sculptures also feel very technological, in a way. They are so perfectly done, like a perfect artifact, a bit synthetic…
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — I wanted that. I think if I had a child today, their experience would be so vastly different from mine. So different than mine is from my mother’s, for example, or yours is from your mother’s. Like, it’s a different body. So, I wanted to be quite accurate about what this one is like.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And some of the sculptures are cast, but others are made using 3-D tools?
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Well, I began with the traditional life-casting process, which is very hands-on, almost like a healing process, you know: hands on hands. I work with a woman named Sarah Sitkin, and she knows my body better than I know it and how to capture everything that is happening within it, at any given moment. After the quarantine hit, we began working mostly in 3-D, where human hands don’t need to be touching to make the magic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And we’re entering into a new virtual world of communication.
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — Yes. It’s almost spiritual. It’s about transmutation, which we’re all in the middle of right now. The world is moving on — just look around.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s interesting. They remind me of the pharaonic sculptures. They are a representation of the body, but also a travel to the afterlife.
ISABELLE ALBUQUERQUE — I spent a lot of time in Egypt when I was little, and I especially love the sculptures that speak to the shift between genders when a woman enters the afterlife — for a moment, she becomes a man and then switches back just before her rebirth.
[Table of contents]
by Olivier Zahm
cover #13 chanel s/s 2021Read the article
essay by Édouard Glissant
doug aitkenRead the article
an island of one’s ownRead the article
cover #11 elizabeth glaessnerRead the article
hypothetical islandsRead the article
i’m not a rockRead the article
la cupolaRead the article
cover #16 bottega veneta s/s 2021Read the article
lisa yuskavageRead the article
a folder called islandsRead the article
pleasure islandRead the article
cover #10 miriam cahnRead the article
the ibiza mythRead the article
cover #17 berluti s/s 2021Read the article
mugler s/s 2021Read the article
raoul hausmannRead the article
testo-maniaRead the article
island undergroundRead the article
hans ulrich obristRead the article
balenciaga summer 2021Read the article
donna harawayRead the article
cover #3 au départ parisRead the article
carsten höllerRead the article
prada s/s 2021Read the article
tiffany siaRead the article
cover #7 balenciaga summer 2021Read the article
emporio armani s/s 2021Read the article
cover #9 emporio armani s/s 2021Read the article
miriam cahnRead the article
lili sumnerRead the article
elizabeth glaessnerRead the article
we are islandsRead the article
cover #15 saint laurent s/s 2021Read the article
alejandro cardenasRead the article
ami s/s 2021Read the article
chanel s/s 2021Read the article
catherine malabouRead the article
comme des garçons s/s 2021Read the article
isamu noguchi playscapesRead the article
cover #6 gucci s/s 2021Read the article
paradise regainedRead the article
soundwalk collectiveRead the article
cover #5 amanda wallRead the article
terunobu fujimoriRead the article
ricardo bofillRead the article
anna uddenbergRead the article
the cybernetic cop: robocop and the future of policingRead the article
cover #1 lisa yuskavageRead the article
marina baie des angesRead the article
sweden’s islandsRead the article
cover #4 raoul hausmannRead the article
mathieu briandRead the article
mark dionRead the article
cover #14 comme des garçons s/s 2021Read the article
the red islandRead the article
wild swimmingRead the article
berluti s/s 2021Read the article
cover #2 mugler s/s 2021Read the article
nails by mei kawajiriRead the article
party for oneRead the article
cover #12 ami s/s 2021Read the article
rachel roseRead the article
le grand chaletRead the article
cover #18 jil sanderRead the article
first stepsRead the article
philippe starckRead the article
lola montes schnabelRead the article
cover #8 prada s/s 2021Read the article
utopia, utopiaRead the article
torbjørn rødlandRead the article